A panel of whistleblowers described various forms of punishment they experienced after reporting problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, including demotions, verbal abuse and one situation where a doctor had his office moved to a storage room.
Speaking at a hearing before a House Committee on Veterans Affairs subcommittee Monday, VA employees and others illustrated how a culture of retaliation continues to limit transparency and accountability at the agency that has been mired in scandal since 2014.
“It’s shameful,” said Dr. Christian Head, of the Los Angeles VA, who said he has endured ongoing abuse after testifying in Congress and submitting complaints about issues such as the batch deletion of patient appointments.
Head described a process where supervisors isolate employees, defame them and attack their professional competence in order to discredit their allegations.
“Moving me to a storage bin makes me feel bad, but they are sending a message,” Head said. “They are trying to intimidate. They are trying to suppress [whistleblowers’] willingness to try to make a better life for these veterans.”
A recent CNN investigation found that in contrast to a VA regional director’s congressional testimony that the average wait time for new patient appointments at the Los Angeles VA was four days, the actual average wait time was more than 10 times that.
An official with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, Carolyn Lerner, said more whistleblower complaints come from the VA than any other federal agency, including the Defense Department which has about twice as many employees.
Yet Lerner said a problem exists in the VA where whistleblowers themselves become the objects of internal investigations while their complaints are overlooked or dismissed too quickly.
Richard Tremaine, a director at the Central Alabama VA, said he experienced this firsthand.
Tremaine described being forced off an Alabama VA campus, stripped of leadership responsibilities and subjected to seemingly irrelevant questioning after he reported scheduling manipulations in 2014 that occurred under the former director James Talton, who was later fired.
“Retaliation — that seems to be the first step whenever a whistleblower comes forward,” Tremaine said.
Dr. Maryann Hooker, a neurologist at the Wilmington, Delware, VA medical center, described a culture of “personal manipulation at all levels” that has affected members of a local VA union. She said she has witnessed VA employees have their duties removed, their clinical records scrutinized and their performance ratings reduced after reporting managerial problems.
The VA’s Office of Accountability Review, established in 2014 to promote leadership accountability within the department, is currently handling 80 cases, of which 15 involve whistleblower retaliation, the office’s director Meghan Flanz said Monday.
Yet when questioned, Flanz said only three senior VA managers who retaliated against whistleblowers have been fired.
“VA is still working toward the full culture change we must achieve to ensure all employees feel safe disclosing problems,” Flanz said in her written testimony.
“It’s very simple,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, the chairman of the subcommittee. “If you retaliate against or stifle employees who are trying to improve VA for our nation’s veterans, you should not be working for VA.”