Congress remembers a whistleblower – and helps every federal worker

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The Veterans Administration (“VA”) is the most notorious anti-whistleblower federal agency in the U.S. government. Recent statistics paint a dangerous and hostile picture for any VA employee who reports patient abuse. Over 30 percent of all federal employee whistleblower cases come out of the VA, and in 2016 alone over 1,100 retaliation cases were filed by VA employees with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

Behind these numbers are real people, suffering for doing the right thing. One was Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick, a clinical psychologist whose first job out of school was at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wis. Dr. Kirkpatrick witnessed patient abuse. Patients were being over-medicated. Dr. Kirkpatrick did the right thing, and blew the whistle, properly raising his concern at a patient-care meeting with other doctors. Retaliation was swift.

{mosads}He was called into a disciplinary meeting, handed a written reprimand, and warned to stop further criticisms of the agency.

Dr. Kirkpatrick didn’t stop. After being disciplined for reporting patient abuse, he again wrote to his supervisor, reporting problems with patient medication. Three months later he was fired from his job. After learning of his termination, Dr. Kirkpatrick went home and committed suicide.

Eventually, an investigation into the over-medication of patients at the Tomah VA proved that Dr. Kirkpatrick was right. The VA found “unsafe clinical practices” with opiates being prescribed at two-and-one-half the times the national average. No investigation was conducted over Dr. Kirkpatrick’s retaliation.

On May 25, 2017, the U.S. Senate passed the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Act and one month later the bill was introduced into the House by Congressman Sean Duffy (R-Wis.). The bill contains several important reforms, protecting probationary employees (like Dr. Kirkpatrick), prohibiting federal managers from improperly accessing the medical files of whistleblowers, mandating discipline against managers who retaliate and requiring that all supervisors receive trainings on the rights of employees to report waste, fraud and abuse. But the bill does something much more than enhance whistleblower protections. By honoring Dr. Kirkpatrick, the bill calls attention to the financial, emotional, and personal hardship faced by whistleblowers.

In a landmark “special report” published by the New England Journal of Medicine, the types of stress and resulting medical problems faced by whistleblowers who lose their jobs was fully documented. The most obvious stressor is financial. For Dr. Kirkpatrick, he just lost his first job, and faced $185,000 in debt. The Journal documented the other “stress-related health” reported by whistleblowers, “including shingles, psoriasis, autoimmune disorders, panic attacks, asthma, insomnia, temporomandibular joint disorder, migraine headaches, and generalized anxiety.”[v]

On his last day at work Dr. Kirkpatrick spoke to his union representative, Lin Ellinghuysen. Her notes recorded his last words on-the-job: “Lin, will you try to do something for me? Try to get a support system so that no one else has to go through what I did, will you please do that?”

The Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act is an important step in the right direction. Ultimately, federal employee whistleblowers need to be guaranteed access to the courts. Today, federal employee whistleblowers are among the least protected class of workers in the United States. For example, federal contractors facing retaliation for reporting fraud can have their cases heard by a jury in federal court. Similar protections exist of corporate employees who report Wall Street frauds.   The Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act will close loopholes in the law. Next on the list must be full court access for federal employee whistleblowers.

Stephen M. Kohn is a partner in the whistleblower right’s law firm of Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto and serves as the pro bono executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. He has represented whistleblowers since 1984, and is the author of The New Whistleblower’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing the Right Thing and Protecting Yourself (Lyons Press 2017).

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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