The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He blew the whistle on the VA — and then was almost sacked for eating stale sandwiches

Brandon Coleman at his home 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)

After a food services manager with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Philadelphia blew the whistle on faulty sanitation practices, his supervisors attempted to fire him for eating four old sandwiches worth a total of $5. Yet the concerns he raised about a fly infestation were not investigated, investigators said.  He was also reassigned to clean a morgue.

Troy Thompson’s story is being used as an example of how VA is quick to silence and punish whistleblowers yet  fails “to adequately discipline employees for endangering the health and safety of veterans,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, who is pressing the White House to look into what she called a “pattern” she was concerned about.

“This is a pattern where whistleblowers who disclose wrongdoing often face trumped-up charges but where employees who put vets’ health at risk or engage in misconduct that endangers vets are going unpunished,” Lerner said. “The bottom line is, you can’t discipline whistleblowers for coming forward but not discipline those who have done wrong.”

Her letter to the White House comes before a Senate hearing on VA whistleblowers Tuesday in which Lerner, along with several whistleblowers, will testify. Among them will be Brandon Coleman, a therapist and decorated veteran at the VA Hospital in Phoenix, the epicenter of last year’s scandal. He 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. Six days after he spoke with his boss, Coleman recalled, he was suspended from his job. He believes it was in retaliation.

It’s been more than a year since a group whistleblowers first came forward to expose lying about wait times for veterans seeking care for everything from depression to back pain. Former VA secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid the national scandal.

His replacement, Bob McDonald, has promised wide-ranging reforms at the VA. He announced that he wanted to make “every employee a whistleblower” and create a fresh culture that “celebrates them.”And he promised to change what has been described as part of a “corrosive culture” inside the VA.

But while the agency has made progress, Lerner said, the last part of the puzzle is making sure whistleblowers are protected, and to punish those who do wrong. The letter says that, for instance, Katherine Mitchell, a VA doctor who raised numerous problems that were hurting veterans in Phoenix, was threatened and mistreated.

She highlighted pressing problems such as the lack of nurses appropriately trained in medical triage in the emergency department, resulting in at least 110 cases in which patients experienced dangerous delays in care. In one case, a patient with a history of strokes waited almost eight hours for treatment after arriving in the Phoenix VA’s Emergency Department with low blood pressure, the letter says.

Even after she raised the concerns with her superiors in 2009, the problems were shoved aside until last year.

There is also the case of Jonathan Wicks, a former clinical social worker at the Vet Center in Federal Way, Wash. Wicks disclosed that the manager of a VA clinic intentionally falsified government records, repeatedly overstating the amount of time she spent in face-to-face counseling sessions with veterans, the OSC says.

The VA’s office of medical inspection, which Lerner says is doing a proactive job, substantiated his disclosures. Regional leaders were aware of the manager’s misconduct due to earlier reviews, yet failed to take action to address it at the time.

“After OMI substantiated Wicks’ allegations, the manager and regional leaders received only a reprimand, the lowest form of discipline,” the OSC says in the letter.

In another example, the director of a VA clinic in Maryland improperly monitored witness testimony through a video feed to a conference room during an OMI investigation of patient care problems.

“The director’s actions could create a chilling effect on the willingness of employees to participate in investigations that promote better care for veterans. However, the director received only a written counseling,” the OSC says.

In Montgomery, Ala., a staff pulmonologist copied and pasted prior provider notes for veterans rather than taking current readings, which violated VA rules and resulted in inaccurate recordings of vital patient health information.

An investigation confirmed that the pulmonologist copied and pasted health information in 1,241 separate patient records. Yet the physician received only a reprimand, the letter says.

“The lack of accountability in these cases stands in stark contrast to disciplinary actions taken against VA whistleblowers,” Lerner said in the letter. “The VA has attempted to fire or suspend whistleblowers for minor indiscretions, and often for activity directly related to the employee’s whistleblowing. While OSC has worked with VA headquarters to rescind the disciplinary actions in these cases, the severity of the initial punishments chills other employees from stepping forward to report concerns.”

VA said in a statement that they were “committed to creating a work environment in which all employees – from front-line staff through lower-level supervisors to senior managers and top VA officials – feel safe sharing what they know, whether good news or bad, for the benefit of Veterans, without fear of reprisal.”

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