When Christian Head testified before Congress last year in an effort “to improve the health care provided to our country’s heroes,” his bosses at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (GLAHS) were not pleased.
Not long after returning to Los Angeles, the head and neck surgeon was moved from an office in the chief of staff’s suite to a former storage room two floors below — “a tiny, dirty, poorly furnished closet-sized” space with a cracked computer monitor, he told another House hearing Monday.
Monday’s session demonstrated that VA’s entrenched culture of retaliation against whistleblowers endures, a year after revelations exploded over poor service and the covering up of long patient wait times. The retaliation continues despite the solid efforts of the current VA secretary, who replaced one driven out by the scandal.
“The number of new whistleblower cases from VA employees remains overwhelming,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner told the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee hearing.
As the scandal reached a boil last July, Head testified to members of Congress about “illegal and inappropriate discrimination and retaliation” against employees and “the growing number of complaints coming from VA employees, complaints ranging from racial, gender, and age discrimination and harassment to complaints regarding substandard patient care and treatment.”
He also said then that “administrators and supervisors within GLAHS have created a climate of fear and intimidation, where the system not only fails to protect whistleblowers, but actively seeks to retaliate against them.”
Head got a good taste of that retaliation with his forced move to an office with torn carpet and “trash on the floor, soot covering the floor and windowsills,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
In case there is any doubt about the motivation behind his forced move, the government confirmed the reasons in a court document filed in answer to Head’s retaliation-and-discrimination lawsuit against VA. The Justice Department, representing VA, said “the decision to move Plaintiff” from his previous chain of command “was because of Plaintiff’s statements before Congress. . . . [I]t was decided that Plaintiff should be moved from the Executive Suite where their [his supervisors’] offices were located to a private office on the Fourth Floor. These decisions were made in July 2014, after Plaintiff’s Congressional testimony.”
For Head, “it was a bad experience.”
Monday’s hearing did not seem to be a good experience for Meghan Flanz, director of VA’s Office of Accountability Review, who was in the uncomfortable position of representing the agency before angry subcommittee members. They were upset with VA over the department’s continued retaliation against whistleblowers, the scant disciplinary action taken against retaliators and Flanz’s inability to provide members all the information they wanted.
“My blood is boiling,” Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) told Flanz.
Flanz said three senior VA managers have been fired at least in part for retaliating against whistleblowers. She did not say how many cases there were in total but indicated that proving retaliation by a manager is more difficult than showing that an employee has been retaliated against. Flanz refused to elaborate when the Diary tried to question her after the hearing, while she was being shielded by a VA aide. Likewise, VA public affairs did not respond to repeated requests for information submitted by e-mail and phone.
“If you want to send a message that people, wrongdoers, are going to be held accountable, you actually have to hold at least one accountable,” Rice said. “And if you look at the numbers of complaints, they far outweigh any level of accountability.”
Flanz acknowledged that VA “continues to have problems ensuring that whistleblower disclosures receive prompt and effective attention, and that whistleblowers themselves are protected from retaliation.”
To show how low retaliators will stoop, Lerner said retribution has included the use of employee medical records to discredit whistleblowers.
When Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), the chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, asked Head and two other VA-employee witnesses whether any disciplinary action had been taken against those who engaged in reprisals, the witnesses all answered, “None.”
Although there is widespread agreement that VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald “is doing his best to correct VA’s course,” as Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a statement on the April 9 anniversary of his first hearing on the scandal, data from the Office of Special Counsel show that retaliation against VA whistleblowers is robust.
Lerner said that despite a “genuine commitment to protecting whistleblowers” by the current VA leadership, whistleblower cases reviewed by her office are almost 150 percent higher than historical levels. Nearly 40 percent of her office’s incoming cases are from VA, although her office takes cases from across the government.
The change of culture that VA needs, she said, “is difficult and will take time.”
Apparently, a long time.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.