Whistleblower reprisals still plague VA

Without whistleblowers, the revelation that the Department of Veterans Affairs tried to cover up dangerous delays in care at its health facilities may not have ever come to light. But employees who expose wrongdoing still face reprisals in the VA system, even as it tries desperately to change, the Washington Post reports.

The VA scandal, which centered on secret wait lists used to conceal extreme appointment backlogs that caused some veterans to die waiting for care, cost VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job and led to repeated calls for reform. Shinseki's successor Robert McDonald has tried to engineer a more efficient, transparent VA, aiming to fix not only the department's administrative shortfalls but also to correct what one watchdog group called a "culture of intimidation and climate of fear" that discourages employee dissent.

Yet while the department has settled the complaints of some former whistleblowers, administrators at VA facilities continue to punish employees who are critical of the standard of care provided to veterans, according to the Post. In fact, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is reviewing 111 reprisal cases that were reported since McDonald took the helm in July, the newspaper reported.

One such whistleblower is Brandon Coleman, who told the Post his bosses suspended him from his job as a VA therapist after he raised concerns about inadequate treatment of suicidal veterans. His experience echoes the story of nurse Rachael Hogan, whom the OSC said VA management threatened to fire after she called out wrongdoing in a Syracuse, New York, facility that included a fellow nurse who twice fell asleep while assigned to watch a suicidal patient.

McDonald has said he "will not tolerate retaliation against those who raise issues which may enable VA to better serve veterans," FierceHealthcare reported, but he faces an uphill battle to achieve a comprehensive culture change.

"With how big the VA system is, McDonald is playing whack-a-mole, and I think he's going a great job and trying to change the culture as aggressively as we have ever seen," Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told the Post. "But each region is its own very dysfunctional fiefdom, so on the ground it's going to take some real time."

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