The Veterans Affairs Department repeatedly downplayed whistleblower complaints instead of admitting problems that led to widespread patient neglect, a federal watchdog said Monday.
In a six-page letter to President Obama and congressional leaders, Carolyn Lerner, the head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), said officials regularly claimed “harmless error” as a defense instead of taking steps to correct mistakes and improve medical care.
“This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans,” said Lerner.
“As a result, veterans’ health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk,” she added.
Her letter detailed nine cases across the country where the VA and its Office of the Medical Inspector received complaints, acknowledged treatment issues but still claimed patient care was “unaffected.”
The OSC, which investigates whistleblower complaints throughout the federal government, has referred 29 additional cases to the VA for scrutiny.
The VA has been rocked in recent months by revelations of fraudulent practices at many of its medical hospitals and clinics nationwide.
Lerner cited a number of cases around the country where her office was able to substantiate claims made by whistleblowers, including reports that two VA schedulers at a facility in Fort Collins, Colo., were removed from their jobs for refusing to “zero out” patient wait times.
In another instance, a psychiatric patient waited eight years for his first evaluation after being admitted to a VA mental health facility in Brockton, Mass.
The OSC recommend the department tap a high-level official to evaluate its conclusions, consider possible corrective and disciplinary actions and determine if the cases laid out in the letter indicate systemic problems.
“I am deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously,” Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a statement.
He said the department would accept all of the OSC recommendations.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said that despite documented problems with the VA medical network, “in the fantasy land inhabited by VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector, serious patient safety issues apparently have no impact on patient safety.”
Miller added “it's impossible to solve problems by whitewashing them or denying they exist.”