(Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic
There have been dozens of complaints of backlash against whistleblowers who have come forward concerning the conduct of VA hospitals. A federal regulator is investigating the allegations of reprisal at the Department of Veteran Affairs. These allegations come after a nationwide scandal stunned Americans in which 40 veterans allegedly died due to claims of secret waiting lists and backlog wait-time issues.
To date, there are 86 allegations of VA reprisal, though other reports suggest there are upwards of 1000 against whistleblowers in 19 states.
There are 37 out of the 86 staff members who are claiming “scheduling improprieties and other potential threats to patient safety,” that allege they have been retaliated against by the VA for exposing the abuse and other misconduct, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. This independent investigative organization is responsible for protecting all federal employees from any improper employment practices which include backlash against whistleblowers.
The VA has been under a tremendous amount of scrutiny of late for the delays in patient care but the Office of Special Counsel stated that not all 37 complaints are related to the VA scandal.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in whistleblowing complaints for scheduling and health and safety issues at the VA generally,” commented a representative of the Special Counsel. “They’re all related to patient safety, but not all have to do with appointment scheduling.”
As I previously reported, Sam Foote, a retired VA doctor, was instrumental in exposing secret logs of patient waiting lists that may have played a role in the deaths of many veterans at the VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Foote worked for the VA for 24 years and retired, in large part, so that he could unveil the events being played out in the VA hospital system.
“When the Veterans Administration in Phoenix began to fall significantly behind on a policy stating that veterans should get the care they need within 30 days, workers devised a solution that involved entering information into a computer screen, printing the screen, and then not saving the record. This allowed them to hide the long wait times some veterans endured, sometimes longer than a year, from oversight. The nations veterans were denied healthcare they were promised, and the organization responsible for providing that care was hiding it’s failures with a scheme that apparently involved Arizona VA employees from front-line administrators all the way up to the top management. It turns out VA offices around the country were using similar tricks,” stated The Atlantic.
The Obama administration’s reaction and response to the scandal seems to have ruffled a few feathers. Many Americans believe Obama’s response should be swift and without hesitation, much the way his response to the Healthcare.gov disaster appeared to be. Though the two are drastically different, one being a technological malfunction and the other a human malfunction, speed is a necessity when lives are at stake.
“I feel very sorry for the people who work at the Phoenix VA, Foote stated. “They’re all frustrated. They’re all upset. They all wish they could leave ‘cause they know what they’re doing is wrong…But they have families, they have mortgages and if they speak out or say anything to anybody about it, they will be fired and they know that.”
The Atlantic reports, “Despite the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, the federal government during the Bush and Obama administrations has grown increasingly hostile to whistleblowers. Barack Obama campaigned on transparency and whistleblower protection; his transition agenda said, ‘”Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse is government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled.”’
Why then, President Obama, were only 62 out of 1000 whistleblower revelations of abuse, fraud, health and safety issues given back to the Office of Special Counsel for additional examination?
Regardless of the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, whistleblowers are afraid of, and are, losing their jobs or facing retaliation in some form. But receiving blunt, straightforward information from staff members is absolutely crucial if problems are to be addressed and solutions found.
Head of the OSC, Carolyn Lerner, stated, “However, employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation.”
Employees at the bottom level will not feel led or comfortable exposing the truth until they are assured of zero reprisals and given pure amnesty. This assurance should be filtered down from the top to incorporate the over 5 million administrative personnel. If not, they may never feel secure in doing the right thing.
“From the prosecution of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden to the woefully inadequate implementation of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, the Obama administration had helped to maintain an environment of fear among federal-government employees,” writes The Atlantic.
According to the OSC, a whistleblower was suspended for 7 days after telling the VA Inspector General of incidents of computer coding measures, and improper scheduling techniques. Not only was this employee reassigned to a different position, they also claimed their performance evaluation was lowered as well and that it was lowered immediately following the report given to the IG.
The OSC disallowed disciplinary actions, last month, against staff members while investigations are underway.
If reports of wrongdoing are being discouraged through fear, we may never know if or when the problems plaguing the VA hospitals are resolved and this simply won’t do.
“Unlike Healthcare.gov, there’s not a publicly visible website that anyone can try out. Whistleblowers are the only avenue for accountability.”
By Lorra B. Chief writer for Silent Soldier