VA apologizes for whistleblower retaliation

A senior Department of Veterans Affairs official late Tuesday night apologized to employees who had spoken out about shoddy medical care and faced retaliation for their efforts.

“I apologize to everyone whose voice was stifled,” James Tuchschmidt, the acting principal deputy under secretary for health, told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “I’m past being upset and mad and angry about this. I’m very disillusioned and sickened by all of this.”

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Tuchschmidt made his comments following hours of testimony by four whistleblowers who said they had been harassed for reporting various problems throughout the VA’s healthcare system.

Intimidation efforts, among other things, included having their pay suspended and being transferred out of facilities without any explanation, they said.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is looking into 67 claims of retaliation by VA managers against employees who lodged whistleblower complaints, including 25 filed since June 1, according to Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner.

About 30 of the complaints have passed the initial review stage and have been marked for further investigation, Lerner told the panel, noting the complaints were filed in 28 states at 45 separate facilities.

Lerner repeated many of the conclusions her office made in a June 23 letter to President Obama and congressional leaders that said the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector routinely dismissed, or minimized, whistleblower complaints.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has since announced that the head of that office has retired, and the organization itself would be restructured.

Tuchschmidt, who at times was visibly distraught, said he hoped the personal stories he heard “are exceptions and not the rule” and that the medical inspector office would be tasked with a new, internal audit function that would listen to and seek out whistleblowers.

Still, Tuchschmidt’s apology was not enough for panel members.

“It pains me to say, but I don’t believe with one fiber of my being that you’re going to get this right,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said. “A generation of good work has been erased.”

Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) said the latest revelations show the VA needs “real dramatic changes … it’s a systemic problem, and we need to deal with it.”

Tuchschmidt, who has served at the agency for 20 years, said he has seen a difference since VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned on May 30. He pointed out that Gibson has traveled to medical centers across the country and that his engagement with staff has been “phenomenal.”

That argument, too, fell on deaf ears.

“If the new secretary, when he comes aboard, has folks like you in senior leadership … it show’s he’s not serious about change,” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) charged.

Lerner said she was optimistic that VA could turn around its culture and that she had been encouraged by the recent moves made by Gibson.