VA employees say agency is actively retaliating against whistleblowers

VA employees say agency is actively retaliating against whistleblowers

Three employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs said in new interviews that they were sidelined at their jobs and stripped of responsibilities after they raised alarms about improper treatment of patients.

In interviews with USA Today the three staffers, physician Katherine Mitchell, CT technologist Jeffrey Dettbarn, and psychologist Minu Aghevli, Ph.D., said that they were removed from patient care positions to prevent them from learning of future or ongoing abuses at the agency.

The three are set to testify before Congress on a wide range of patient mistreatment this week.

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"The VA is two-faced: What it says it does and what it actually does are two entirely different things," Mitchell told USA Today. "Whistleblowers who are brave enough to report problems serve as a vital safety net for veterans. If people can’t identify problems, veterans will suffer and die. That’s what it boils down to."

"As a physician, nurse, and basically as a human being, I will not back down if someone’s health or safety is being threatened," she added in the interview.

Dettbarn, who said he hoped to return to patient care, added that a culture of fear at the agency had led to few staffers advocating on behalf of patients.

"There's nobody there to watch out for the veterans," he told the newspaper. "They've got everybody else scared to say anything. Who's taking care of those patients?"

Sidelining those who speak out, she added, "jeopardizes the health and safety of every veteran in the system."

A spokesman for the agency declined to comment to USA Today on the assertions from Mitchell and the others. In a statement to The Hill, an agency spokesperson stressed that the agency was working on implementing new improvements to protect whistleblowers.

"These include providing timelier resolutions, more responsive recommendations and enhancing communications with whistleblowers," the spokesperson said.

"VA does not tolerate retaliation against employees who have made a protected disclosure," the spokesperson continued. "Any employee who feels they have been retaliated against for making a protected disclosure is encouraged to contact VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP)."

This article was updated at 6/24/2019 at 7:00 p.m.