In testimony submitted before a Monday, April 13th subcommittee of the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs hearing, VA employees attest that whistleblower retaliation is still rampant despite a year-long attempt to reform the department. Several whistleblowers, who exposed the shocking data falsification scandal involving treatment delays last year, are claiming that retaliation persists despite the departmental overhaul and current Secretary, Bob McDonald’s professed commitment to making whistleblower protection a priority. The scandal cost former VA Secretary, Eric Shinseki, his job and stirred a national uproar over the medical treatment of veterans. One committee member, Mike Coffman (R-CO), agrees with the witnesses, responding, “The hostility they receive for their conscientious behavior shows that the retaliatory culture, where whistleblowers are castigated for bringing problems to light, is still very much alive and well in the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
There are about 120 active investigations into whistleblower retaliation according to special counsel, Carolyn Lerner, with punishments including reassignment, harassment, humiliation, and suspensions. One of the more noteworthy examples given in Monday’s testimony was the saga of Dr. Christian Head, who testified last July about wait time manipulation at a Los-Angeles Area hospital. Since his testimony, Head alleges to have been demoted, embarrassed in front of patients, had the locks to his office changed, and was moved into a “tiny, dirty, poorly furnished closet-sized office.” Head claims that he has been in constant conflict with his supervisor since July, and that he was also denied an opportunity to meet McDonald when he toured the facility earlier in the year. Among others who detailed their ordeals following the scandal’s exposure included former executive Richard Tremaine, who was demoted from his position as associate director of the Central Alabama VA Healthcare System after cooperating with an investigation at his facility, even though the director who oversaw the data manipulation was ultimately fired. Other claims include sexual harassment, denial of vacation, and even a supervisor claiming that one whistleblower retracted his statements when that was not true. Lerner says over 25 people have received settlements involving whistleblower claims so far, including three separate settlements that were agreed upon in the past week.
For her part Meghan Flanz, director of the VA Office of Accountability Review, essentially apologized on behalf of the agency, calling whistleblower protection a “key component” of the VA’s mission, however stating that “the department has had and continues to have problems ensuring that whistleblower disclosures receive prompt and effective attention, and that whistleblowers themselves are protected from retaliation.” Flanz added, “Despite this significant progress, the number of new whistleblower cases from VA employees remains overwhelming.” Although the VA began to implement some online whistleblower rights training and required the 32,000 managers and executives system-wide to take the course, Flanz called a bill that has been introduced in Congress requiring every VA employee to be trained on whistleblower protections, “unworkable.”
Despite McDonald’s alleged commitment to protecting whistleblowers, some in Congress are demanding more measurable improvements. Representative Kathleen Rice (D-NY) wants to see more than the current handful of top-level executives removed for their role in the scandal, stating “It seems to me if you want to send a message that wrongdoers are going to be held accountable; you actually have to hold one accountable.” A year removed from the landmark scandal, it seems that McDonald has yet to get a handle on the whistleblower issue, leading some to wonder how much time he has before he becomes a casualty of the scandal as well.
KJZZ – Alexandra Oglin
Stars and Stripes – Heath Druzin
USA Today – Donovan Slack