The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senator wants answers from VA Secretary on the poor treatment of VA whistleblowers

Brandon Coleman at his home on Feb. 20, 2015 in Peoria, Ariz. Coleman, a Marine veteran and father of two Marines, was put on administrative leave after blowing the whistle on how the Phoenix VA was mishandling potentially suicidal cases. (Jarod Opperman/For The Washington Post)

The poor and punishing treatment of whistleblowers inside the Department of Veterans Affairs has been described as part of a “corrosive culture” that Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald has vowed to change. But whistleblowers say that change, one year later, has still not happened.

Now Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa),  chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is demanding answers on the “beyond unacceptable” treatment of whistleblowers.

In a letter to both McDonald and the VA Office of the Inspector General, he lists a series of questions about what if any progress is being made to address widespread reports of retaliation against VA whistleblowers reporting problems that include everything from data manipulation following last year’s patient wait-times to suicide prevention programs.

Grassley, who says he has a long history of working to protect whistleblowers, both legislatively and through his oversight efforts, called the VA’s culture of isolating and harassing whistleblowers “an epidemic.”

[Isolated. Harassed. Their personal lives investigated. That’s life as a VA whistleblower, employees tell Congress.]

A congressional hearing earlier this month included testimony from whistleblowers who reported they were demoted, then moved into windowless storage rooms, or basements. Others found their medical backgrounds scrutinized, and even their mental health and personal lives investigated.  Even after their cases were cleared, those who retaliated against them were rarely if ever punished, they say.

Grassley asks the VA to explain, “What steps are being made to prevent VA employees from accessing the medical records of whistleblowers?”

In another case reported by The Washington Post, Brandon Coleman, a therapist and decorated veteran at the VA Hospital in Phoenix, the epicenter of last year’s scandal, urgently warned that there was a broader problem with how suicidal patients were being handled.

Five suicidal veterans had walked out of the emergency room without getting help during a single week in January, he told his supervisor. But six days after he spoke with his boss, Coleman recalled, he was suspended from his job. He believes it was in retaliation.

[At VA health facilities, whistleblowers still fear retaliation]

Last month, during President Obama’s visit to the hospital, McDonald met with Coleman to discuss retaliation at the VA hospital in Phoenix. Grassley has asked for a progress report on Coleman’s case.

He also asked what steps the VA inspector general’s Whistleblower Protection Ombudsman “has made to train employees on the importance of whistleblowers and/or the protections afforded to whistleblowers.”

The VA has said that it’s committed to improving the culture and protecting whistleblowers. But admits there is still a way to go.