Trump Administration Promises to Protect Veterans Affairs Whistleblowers

George Barrett, 85, of Lakewood, Colo., is checked by nurse Renee Whitley as he recuperates from open-heart surgery at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., on July 16, 2019. (Shawn Fury/VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – For those who blow the whistle on wrongdoing at the Department of Veterans Affairs but find themselves running headlong into a snarl of setbacks and retaliation, relief could soon be on the way, according to the head of the Trump administration’s veterans affairs whistleblower protection office.

President Donald Trump ordered the creation of the Veterans Affairs Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection in April 2017 by executive order and Congress approved it last year. The office is tasked with assessing, investigating and tracking complaints from VA employees and recommending discipline when necessary.

Tuesday’s assurances from Tamara Bonzanto, the office’s assistant secretary for accountability, included a promise to standardize training on whistleblower protections for federal employees, finalize written policy on how disclosures are investigated before October 1, and collaborate with the VA’s Office of the Inspector General to streamline reports while retaining employee privacy.

A questionnaire that will mitigate the risk of those under investigation from investigating themselves – a common occurrence at the office, according to Bonzanto – is also in the works. Best practice guidance will also be distributed to the Office of the Special Counsel, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security.

Testimony Tuesday before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs follows a hearing held last month in which former VA employees recounted intimate details of their retaliatory experiences at the agency. 

Katherine Mitchell, an internist and specialist at the VA in Phoenix, Arizona, first blew the whistle against the VA in 2014, citing concerns about officials zeroing-out waitlists – even though patients had not received care – in order to report a reduced backlog.

Mitchell said last month that the retaliation never stopped but changed.

“Before it was making me work unlimited hours without compensation or dropping my performance evaluations,” Mitchell told Congress last month. “Now, it’s basically excluding me from any opportunity I have to oversee patient care and address the problems.” 

Minu Aghevli, a program coordinator for opioid treatment at a VA facility in Baltimore, Maryland, testified alongside Mitchell last month and corroborated the allegations. 

A day before Aghevli was scheduled to testify on misconduct at the agency, she received a letter from the department notifying her that she was to be fired. The department claimed the proposed termination was the result of “serious clinical practice allegations” brought against her, but Aghevli told Congress she believed it was a warning shot from the Department to get her to keep quiet.

Aghevli also lodged reports on directives encouraging the removal of veterans from an electronic wait list by scheduling “imaginary appointments” for them instead. Aghevli refused to follow those orders, as well as instructions to code patients as “care no longer needed” when no confirmation on their status was made.

Jacqueline Garrick, founder of Whistleblowers of America, told the committee on Tuesday that she continues to have serious concerns about the VA’s efforts to address backlogs of whistleblower complaints and the persistent culture of retaliation against lower level employees who report against higher ranking officials.

“Those who disclose have seen the demise of their careers, moral injuries and identity disruption,” Garrick said. “Employees risk their careers to protect veterans while senior VA officials travel to Europe, attend NASCAR events and curry favor with contractors at taxpayer expense.” 

Henry Kerner, special counsel to the Office of Special Counsel – which handles disclosures and complaints of retaliation– told lawmakers Tuesday his branch is in dire need of staff to help process whistleblower complaints and coordinate across government agencies.

“There are 6,000 new filings each year and we’re a small staff of 140 full-time employees, including some in field offices,” Kerner said.

Thirty-five percent of the complaints Kerner’s office receives are specifically related to veterans alone.

Representative Chris Pappas, D-N.H., told officials Tuesday’s testimony left him wanting more and confirmed that another whistleblower hearing to check on the status of recommendations shared by VA officials will be held in September.

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