President during the swearing-in ceremony for Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie last year. A whistleblower has accused VA of having a secret wait list. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Jereme P. Whiteman rose quickly through the Department of Veterans Affairs, reaching the top grade on the main employee classification scale in only seven years.

But his future within VA appears stymied. He’s become a rebel within the department’s establishment — a whistleblower who says the scandals that shamed the department during the Obama administration haven’t stopped.

Whiteman, VA’s national director of clinic practice management and a onetime Marine, has accused the department under President Trump of having “a secret VA wait list” for veterans seeking health care.

It’s starkly reminiscent of the tsunami-level scandal that broke in 2014 over the coverup of long patient wait times. That coverup included falsifying records to indicate the wait for medical service was shorter than it really was. Congress went ballistic, and the controversy drove then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a former Army general and chief of staff, from office.

Whiteman said figures from internal reports indicate the actual number of veterans waiting for VA health care could be much higher than the numbers VA makes publicly available. Whiteman provided copies of the internal reports to The Washington Post.

From May 1, 2018, through May 1, 2019, the monthly average on the department’s public electronic wait list (EWL) was 14,971. During that period, the monthly average on the internal electronic wait list was 44,478.

In an email Wednesday night to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, Whiteman said that “I discovered a secret VA wait list” in September and that “the agency has taken steps to conceal this wait list from the public.” He warned Wilkie that this could hurt the agency “unless swift actions are taken to properly address my concerns.”

Through its Veterans Health Administration, the department runs 1,250 health-care facilities, serving 9 million veterans annually.

VA press secretary Curt Cashour said Whiteman’s allegations are false. Cashour said VA’s electronic wait list has two components — clinical and administrative.

He said the clinical list — the public list — tracks the number of veterans waiting for medical treatment.

Of the other list, he said that “the administrative component of the EWL has nothing to do with waits for medical treatment and tracks routine actions, such as facility and provider transfer requests.”

Cashour said VA does not publicly post the administrative component of the EWL, “because it has nothing to do with waits for medical treatment and would only create confusion.”

Whiteman punched back, telling Wilkie that Cashour’s statement to The Post was “incredibly disingenuous.” Whiteman said any veteran waiting for treatment should be included on the public list, including veterans waiting for VA-funded care by private providers or veterans waiting to be transferred to another facility.

Unlike many federal whistleblowers, Whiteman went public while still on the job. Whiteman went through his chain of command months before becoming frustrated and contacting The Post’s Federal Insider.

Whiteman, 39, said he rose to GS-15, the top of the General Schedule, last year after just seven years as a federal civilian, all with VA. The Temple Hills, Md., resident started as a GS-7, doing pharmacy billing.

Before joining VA, he was a Marine for eight years, leaving as a staff sergeant working on jet weapons systems. His pride in that service is evident from his glass-enclosed uniform displayed on his office wall, along with other Marine and family decorations in his windowless spot on the eighth floor of VA’s Central Office, across Lafayette Square from the White House.

In a September email to his boss, Susan Kirsh, the acting assistant deputy undersecretary for health for access to care, and her boss, Steven L. Lieberman, VA’s acting principal deputy undersecretary for health, Whiteman said the discrepancies in public and internal wait-list numbers “could be seen as VA hiding a very large wait list of Veterans waiting extremely long for care.”

Whiteman was so disappointed in the way leadership handled his concerns that he filed a verbal complaint, under oath, about the discrepancies with the department’s Office of the Medical Inspector. He asked the office to investigate circumstances for patients who died while on the wait list to determine whether the deaths were connected to wait times.

Cashour said the medical inspector’s office found the allegations unsubstantiated. In the email to Wilkie, however, Whiteman said the medical inspector never followed up with him beyond his initial statement.

Whiteman has filed official complaints charging VA with retaliation against him because of his whistleblowing.

In an April 27 email, Whiteman told VA’s whistleblower protection office that one example of retribution followed the successful deployment of a text-message reminder system that led to a significant reduction in the number of missed medical appointments, saving an estimated $112 million annually.

“I lead a team of four VA employees on this project,” he wrote in an email to the whistleblower office. “I was the only one of the four who did not get an award for this project. I believe this was retaliation for my Whistleblower activity.”

Cashour said the department does not tolerate retaliation, but he did not comment on this allegation.

Whiteman also filed a retaliation complaint in an April 29 email to the Office of Special Counsel. This independent federal office protects federal whistleblowers. Despite the name, it is not led by or related to Robert S. Mueller III, who led a special-counsel investigation of Russia’s actions in support of Trump’s candidacy.

Although Whiteman is a GS-15, his email to the special-counsel office said he was subjected to “numerous undesirable work assignments” from Kirsh, including “reporting to a lower grade GS-11 employee. . . . I find this degrading and humiliating, yet I do the work as directed.”

Cashour said, “Whiteman has always reported to someone above the GS-15 level.” Whiteman said that is on paper, not in reality.

Married and the father of five, Whiteman plans to remain at VA, considering it the best place in the federal government for him as a health-care administrator. But his work life is no longer the same.

“It’s well known within headquarters that I am whistleblowing,” he said. “And I see it when I walk down the halls. People, you know, don’t look at me. They don’t make eye contact with me.”

Because of his disclosures, “there’s no more upward mobility for me at this point.” Whiteman said. “I consider myself probably stalled.”