VA scandal: Senate panel blasts continued whistleblower reprisals

The movement for reforms within the Department of Veterans Affairs has largely focused on reducing wait times at VA facilities, but advocates say a hospital culture in which whistleblowers are discouraged or punished persists. Now a whistleblower advocacy group says the department has made little progress on the issue a year later, according to the Associated Press.

Testifying before a Senate committee this week, Shea Wilkes, a VA social worker and co-founder of the "VA Truth Tellers," argued cronyism and lack of accountability are so deeply ingrained within the VA that it is impossible to tell what reforms are needed without better whistleblower protections. Wilkes called the VA's Office of Inspector General, which has not had a permanent leader in nearly two years, a "joke" that cannot address the VA's problems.

Panel Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) called on President Barack Obama to make a permanent appointment to the position, calling reprisals against whistleblowers a deep-rooted problem within the VA, according to the article.

For example, he said, the Tomah, Wisconsin, veterans hospital had created such a sense of fear among employees that it negatively impacted veteran care. If employees at the hospital had felt safe speaking out, Johnson said, it may have prevented the death of Marine Corps veteran Jascon Simcakoski, who died of an overdose in March after the VA prescribed him an opioid used to treat addiction while he was already using 12 other painkillers, antipsychotics and tranquilizers.

The testimony comes in the immediate wake of a new series of independent assessments of the VA that found a widespread reluctance to speak out at multiple facilities and the department's central office. The Office of Special Counsel has reviewed more than 100 retaliation cases since the scandal broke and continues to settle similar complaints, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
- here's the AP article