Government investigates 67 claims of VA whistleblower abuse

The federal government is investigating 67 claims of retaliation by Veterans Affairs Department supervisors against employees who filed whistleblower complaints, according to testimony during a House Veterans Affairs Committee during a hearing this week. 

The government received complaints from 28 states and 45 separate facilities, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner told the committee. At the hearing, Kathrine Mitchell, M.D., medical director of Iraq and Afghanistan post-deployment center at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, where claims of the secret waitlist originally emerged, recounted suffering negative workplace consequences as a result of reporting issues regarding inadequate staffing and insufficient staff training.

"As a 16 year Phoenix VA employee who has routinely advocated for patient care improvements, I have been the recipient of horizontal violence at my facility for years," she said. "I have personally witnessed the devastating consequences such horizontal violence has wreaked on the quality of patient care within the emergency department," she told the committee.

Back at some of the most notorious facilities involved in the cover-up, leadership is changing once again. The second of two temporary directors in less than two months took over at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, per federal regulation, which states leadership must rotate at least once every four months. The move is meant to bring diverse skills and expertise to the facilities, however some experts warn it's counterproductive, especially in an environment in need of a cultural change, AZ Central reported.

It doesn't leave leaders enough time to make a lasting cultural change, it shows a seeming lack of commitment to the public and veterans, and lacks accountability for the leader and their decisions while they're in charge, experts said. "I don't know any successful organization that has done this, that has been successful, or turned around by implementing a rotating system of leaders," Joel Shalowitz, M.D., clinical professor and director of health industry management at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, told the news outlet.

Meanwhile, Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) introduced legislation that would mean employees involved in the VA scandal would have to return financial awards collected since 2011, the senators announced.

If employees contributed to the deliberate omission from an electronic waitlist of veterans awaiting care, or manipulated the waitlist in any way, both they and their supervisors would have to return the awards.

In Columbia, South Carolina, VA Secretary Sloan Gibson apologized to the veterans at Dorn VA hospital, another facility singled out during the investigation for some of the most deaths and longest wait times, WLTX reported. "The first thing I would say is I'm sorry, we let you down. The second thing I would says is have faith, because we are going to deliver on our promise, that's my commitment," said Gibson.

Dorn VA hired new leadership in the past year, cutting backlog nearly in half and reducing wait times for claims from 289 days to 158, according to the article.

To learn more:
- check out the hearing
- here's Learner's testimony
- read Mitchell's testimony
- check out the AZ Central article
- here's the WLTX story
- here's the bill announcement