VA Whistleblowers who Spoke Up about Wait Times Faced Retaliation

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Staff members at the Department of Veterans Affairs faced retaliation when they spoke up about falsified patient-appointment schedules and other misconduct, The Columbus Dispatch reports. Whistleblowers at dozens of VA hospitals say in internal documents that they were targets for retaliation when speaking up.

The VA has been at the center of scandal over falsified wait times, which were used to ensure bonuses. The allegations began at the Phoenix VA, where Dr. Sam Foote said that he was ignored and then harassed for speaking out about administrators “cooking the books”. Dr. Foote told the Arizona Republic that the administrators “started coming after me,” when he reported the issue. He chose to retire early last year after being retaliated against.

Since the scandal began, the Project of Government Oversight, a private group working with whistleblowers, received complaints from about 175 current and former VA employees. The VA inspector general subpoenaed these reports last month, but the group has refused, stating that would compromise the whistleblowers’ confidentiality.

Now, many more employees are empowered to speak up and dozens of facilities have been implicated. The federal Office of Special Counsel is reviewing 37 claims of retaliation by VA employees in 19 states. The office, which investigates whistleblower complaints, recently convinced the VA to end the disciplining of three staff members.

In interviews with the New York Times, a half-dozen former VA staff members said that they faced retaliatory action for reporting problems in the system. The former staff members included four doctors, a nurse, and an office manager in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Alaska. Their stories, some of which are supported by internal documents, show that there is a “culture of silence and intimidation in the department and echo experiences detailed by other VA personnel in court filings, government investigations and congressional testimony” The Columbus Dispatch says.

Sloan D. Gibson, the acting VA secretary, acknowledged that the department has a history of retaliating against whistleblowers. “I understand that we’ve got a cultural issue there, and we’re going to deal with that cultural issue,” she said at a news conference this month in San Antonio. Gibson replaced Eric Shinseki after his resignation last month.