been about 17 months since revelations over the cover-up of long
patient wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
been about 16 months since former VA secretary Eric
K. Shinseki resigned as the scandal reached a boil.
been about 14 months since the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald to
about time things changed.
visitor leaves the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center in
Rancho Cordova, Calif., on April 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Rich
testimony at a Senate hearing Tuesday demonstrated that despite
vigorous efforts from the new VA leadership, the department
remains a dangerous place for whistleblowers who report wrong
VA has a culture problem with whistleblower retaliation,” said
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and
Governmental Affairs Committee.
the VA scandal, veterans were told their wait for care would get
shorter. But it’s actually getting worse.]
“culture of fear” Johnson spoke of is evident in the number of VA
cases handled by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an
independent body that deals with whistleblower retaliation among
other things. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said her small staff
is “truly overwhelmed” by the number of cases it gets from the VA.
whistleblower reprisal cases received by OSC has been rising
quickly, from 405 in fiscal 2013 to a projected 712 for fiscal
2015 – a 75 percent jump.
expects approximately 35 percent of the possible 4,000 prohibited
personnel practice cases filed from across government this year to
be from VA employees. “In 2014, for the first time,” she said,
“the VA surpassed the Department of Defense in the total number of
cases filed with OSC, even though the Defense Department has twice
the number of civilian employees as the VA.”
important part of that problem, senators complained, is the
relative scarcity of discipline against those who retaliate
against whistleblowers. Since 2014, the VA has proposed discipline
for just nine employees for whistleblower retaliation, according
to the VA. Four were suspended, one was fired, two were
reprimanded and the other two cases are pending. Over 20 cases are
Clancy, the chief medical officer of the VA health administration,
admitted the department must do better.
Department has had problems ensuring that whistleblower
disclosures receive prompt and effective attention, and that
whistleblowers themselves are protected from retaliation,” she
told senators. “I acknowledge today that VA is still working
toward the full culture change we must achieve to ensure that all
employees feel safe disclosing problems, and that all supervisors
who engage in retaliatory behavior are held promptly and
Kirkpatrick was a VA psychologist and whistleblower who complained
about over-medication of patients at the Tomah VA Medical Center
in Wisconsin when he committed suicide in 2009. His brother, Sean
Kirkpatrick, spoke for him at the hearing.
brother felt helpless and hopeless with the obstacles he
encountered at the Tomah VA Medical Center,” Sean Kirkpatrick told
the hearing. “He wanted to improve the quality of care for
our nation’s veterans through holistic options and continuously
questioned the over-medication practices which hindered his
ability to treat his patients. He felt his personal safety
disregarded when his life was threatened by a patient who was
never dismissed from the medical center. Even after expressing
concerns with his complex case load, it appears that no assistance
was given, his concerns were disregarded.”
was livid at the response from the VA’s Office of Inspector
General (OIG) to Kirkpatrick’s suicide.
July 2015 report from the OIG “strongly recommended” reviewing a
sheriff department report that suggested Christopher Kirkpatrick
may have been involved in distributing illegal substances.
sounds like reprisal, to me, to a dead person,” said an angry
Johnson, waving the document in his hands. “I was upset coming in
here and I’ve become more upset.”
members on both sides of the partisan divide also are upset with
President Obama for allowing the VA to go without a permanent
inspector general since Dec. 31, 2013. “It is unacceptable that
this important office has been without permanent leadership for
close to two years,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top
Democrat on the panel.
issue disturbing Johnson was testimony from witnesses that VA
managers had inappropriately looked at the medical
records of agency whistleblowers who are veterans.
Christopher Shea Wilkes of Shreveport, La., complained about
unethical VA hiring practices, “I found numerous persons that had
illegally accessed my personal (medical) information,” he said.
“The hospital conducted an investigation but claimed that they had
called the excuse that the VA would need to check medical records
to get employee addresses “a lie.”
blew the whistle on the VA — and then was almost sacked for
eating stale sandwiches]
complained to Obama in a Sept. 17 letter about the lack of
discipline for VA managers found to have done wrong. After listing
cases where managers were not disciplined, or only lightly so, for
infractions, Lerner wrote: “The lack of accountability in these
cases stands in stark contrast to disciplinary actions taken
against VA whistleblowers. The VA has attempted to fire or suspend
whistleblowers for minor indiscretions and, often, for activity
directly related to the employee’s whistleblowing.”
makes it a point of showing VA whistleblowers that they
are appreciated. That’s important leadership. But the senate
testimony shows the entrenched culture remains more powerful than