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VA Whistleblowers Say They Faced Retaliation for Reporting Problems

At a House hearing today, VA employees from around the country will testify about alleged harassment from superiors after they reported problems.

A staffer at a national VA claims center in Atlanta says that after he and other whistleblowers reported problems that included a backlog of 600,000 applications and the deletion of thousands of veterans’ health records, many suffered harassment and retaliation from superiors.

Scott Davis, a program specialist at the Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, is one of four VA employees from around the U.S. scheduled to testify before the House Veterans Affairs Committee Tuesday about alleged punishment of whistleblowers who made accusations of mismanagement, waste and excessive patient wait times.

The Health Eligibility Center (HEC) processes health care eligibility claims for VA hospitals across the country. Davis says that after he complained about the alleged mismanagement of federal funds, his complaints were leaked to his manager, his employment records were altered, and he was placed on administrative leave.

“VA leadership has repeatedly failed to respond to concerns raised by whistleblowers about patient care at VA,” said Davis in prepared testimony. “Despite the best efforts of truly committed employees at HEC and the Veterans Health Administration, who have risked their careers to stand up for veterans; management at all levels ignored or retaliated against them for exposing the truth.”

Davis says that four other individuals who reported problems at Atlanta-area VA facilities also experienced retaliation. He says that after claims surfaced that 2,000 applications for benefits had been shredded, the woman who investigated the claim and found evidence to support it was “subjected to harassment and intimidation.”

Others scheduled to testify include Dr. Jose Matthews, chief of psychiatry at the VA hospital in St. Louis, Dr. Christian Head, associate director of the VA health care system in Los Angeles, and Dr. Katherine Mitchell, an internist for the VA in Phoenix.

A VA spokesman noted that VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson had sent a strong message to all VA employees last month, stating that the VA “must protect whistleblowers” and that intimidation or retaliation against whistleblowers or any employees who identify a problem or report a violation is “absolutely unacceptable.”

The VA’s public pledges of protection for whistleblowers came as the Office of Special Counsel reported, in a letter to President Obama that “too frequently, the VA has failed to use information from whistleblowers to identify and address systemic concerns that impact patient care” and that “as a result, veterans’ health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk.”

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According to a recent OSC press release, OSC currently has 50 pending whistleblower disclosures cases from employees at VA facilities throughout the country, all alleging “threats to patient health or safety,” and is reviewing approximately 60 cases of alleged retaliation against whistleblowers who reported concerns about scheduling, understaffing, and other patient care issues in VA facilities.”

The Special Counsel, Carolyn Lerner, is scheduled to testify at the hearing. According to a press release from the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Tuesday’s hearing will also “explore the steps VA is taking to correct these problems and hold employees who have engaged in whistleblower retaliation accountable.”