At a subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Monday, VA employees addressed lawmakers once again about the culture of whistleblower retaliation within the agency that keeps raising its ugly head.
Stars and Stripes reports that despite the increased scrutiny of the past year and a half, and the ongoing department overhaul, whistleblowers are still facing retaliation. Indeed, if anything, according to Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL), “we’ve taken steps backwards.”
At the hearing, Monday, the employees described a workplace culture where speaking out comes at great cost, even though VA Secretary Bob McDonald has made whistleblower protection a top priority.
One doctor who testified, last summer about wait-time manipulation, was demoted “and embarrassed in front of his patients.” Another employee – an Associate Director from Alabama – was demoted and publicly humiliated by his superiors.
“The hostility they receive for their conscientious behavior shows that the retaliatory culture, where whistleblowers are castigated for bringing problems to light, is still very much alive and well in the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said. “The truth of the matter is, the Congress needs whistleblowers within federal agencies to help identify problems on the ground in order to remain properly informed for the development of effective legislation.”
Dr. Christian Head, who testified in July about wait time manipulation at the VA’s Greater Los Angeles Health Care System, said he has been demoted, embarrassed in front of patients and nearly turned away from an operating room while his patient was under anesthesia, awaiting surgery.
Head says in August he found that the locks had been changed on his office, and he was informed that he had been moved to a “tiny, dirty, poorly furnished closet-sized office” on a different floor. He said his supervisors have engaged in a continuous effort to undermine him since July, including preventing him from meeting with McDonald when the secretary visited the Los Angeles VA system earlier this year, saying his identification badge was expired.
When he complained of his mistreatment, he told Congressmen Monday, a supervisor told him, “If you don’t like it, you’re a whistleblower, take it to Congress.”
In submitted testimony, Head also detailed instances where he said employees experienced racial and religious discrimination.
Richard Tremaine, associate director of the Central Alabama VA Healthcare System, complained that “his superiors took away his leadership role and humiliated him and another whistleblower in emails sent systemwide after he reported malfeasance by system director James Talton, who was eventually fired after an investigation showed patient wait time manipulation Alabama VA hospitals.”
“I speak with you today, with a heavy heart, disgusted by continued cover-ups, a discrediting campaign through open-ended investigations, and the attempted destruction of my career, by the very VA I have always loved being part of,” Tremaine said.
More than 25 VA whistleblowers have received legal settlements for retaliations related to the scandal and about 120 cases are still pending. Still, Carolyn Lerner, special counsel for the Office of Special Counsel, said that, while the VA is reforming, she expects 40 percent of the agency’s cases to come from the VA this year, far more than from any other agency.
She testified that “about 80% of the time – when people come to us with a disclosure, they experience retaliation.”
Rep. Annie Kuster (D-NH) called on VA to end retaliation against Whistleblowers and insisted that disciplinary action against the offenders is key to nipping the problem in the bud.