House lawmakers slam VA’s treatment of whistleblowers

The leaders of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Tuesday slammed the Obama administration's response to whistleblower complaints and the agency’s treatment of employees who disclosed poor medical care.

“Whistleblowers serve the essential function of providing a reality check to what is actually going on within the department,” committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said during a late night hearing. “None of these whistleblowers lost sight of the essential mission of the VA to serve veterans.”

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He noted that whistleblowers were responsible for bringing to light the now national scandal on systemic manipulation of patient data throughout the VA’s medical network.

The VA has a “culture of denying problems and not listening to feedback” and being intolerant of whistleblowers,” Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), the panel’s ranking member said.

“It’s clear that the VA as structured today is fundamentally incapable of making changes in its culture,” he added, saying that there should be a zero tolerance policy for employees who retaliate against others. “Talk is cheap, real change is difficult.”

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) said it was "reprehensible" that roughly half of the whistleblower complaints being investigated by the special counsel are from within the VA.

She said she planned to introduce legislation later this week that would allow complaints to be filed directly to the VA secretary's office.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) said he was "sad to hear there is a need for an agency with higher integrity than the VA" to make sure the department is handling its various human resource issues correctly.

Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) warned that if lawmakers don't root out corruption at the agency the next VA secretary "will be as successful as [former VA chief Eric] Shinseki was."

The criticism comes in the wake of a June 23 letter from the head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel that said officials from the agency’s Office of the Medical Inspector routinely claimed “harmless error” as a defense for patient neglect instead of attempting to improve medical care.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has since announced that the head of the office has retired and begun reorganizing it by appointing an interim director from outside the existing office and suspending the department’s hotline, referring all calls to the VA Inspector General.

The OSC, which investigates whistleblower complaints throughout the federal government, has 67 ongoing investigations into VA retaliation complaints, opening 25 new cases since June 1, according to Michaud.

“Retaliation against whistleblowers exists because there’s a culture of retaliation. That’s really the cancer within the VA,” Christian Head, an associate director at the Greater Lose Angeles VA Healthcare system, told the panel.

He called for greater “shield” laws to protect those who speak out about abuses within the system.

Scott Davis, a program specialist at the VA National Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, said that he had been harassed since reporting that the facility was overwhelmed with 600,000 pending health applications and 40,00 unprocessed health applications at the facility to Rob Nabors, who was dispatched by President Obama to help clean up the problems at the VA.

Katherine Mitchell, a medical director in the Phoenix VA Healthcare System, said she wouldn't recommend someone get a job at the department until whistleblower protections are strengthened.

She offered to pass along the stories of other whistleblower's afraid to lose their jobs since she already has "a target on my back."

Miller said his committee staff was working on new legislation to protect VA whistleblowers and urged the troubled department to embrace those who come forward, rather than “pushing them out.”