VA Raked Over the Coals for Scourging Whistle-Blowers

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Whistle-blowers testified before the Senate on Tuesday about the retaliation they faced for exposing corruption within the “corrupt and broken” Department of Veterans Affairs.
     “Truth tellers are labeled problem children, troublemakers, crazy and much more,” said Shea Wilkes, a social worker who was the subject of a criminal investigation after going to the media with evidence of wait lists in VA hospitals. “We are put under criminal investigation for nonsense in an effort to scare and intimidate. Once a truth teller comes forward, they are alone, grasping for air and desperately trying to protect themselves from the good ol’ boys of VA that have them in their crosshairs.”
     Later the agency accessed Wilkes’ medical records to learn about mental health counseling he received, he told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.
     Brandon Coleman, a whistle-blower in the Phoenix VA, described a similar experience after voicing his concern over unsafe conditions for suicidal veterans who were allowed to walk out of VA emergency rooms.
     Each of the four witnesses to testify Tuesday blamed the retaliation on a lack of accountability among VA higher-ups.
     Wilkes called the inspector general for the agency “a joke.”
     Describing what happened when he first came forward, Coleman said a social worker told him not to “rock the boat,” and that the supervisor with whom he shared his concerns warned him “that’s how people get fired.”
     The testimony came as a shock to Sen. Jon Tester. “Oh my God,” the Montana Democrat said.
     Sean Kirkpatrick told the committee about the suicide of his brother, a man the VA fired shortly after he had notified his supervisor that VA doctors were overmedicating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
     Pausing during his opening statement to collect himself, Kirkpatrick said the VA suggested his brother was a drug dealer during its investigation of his suicide.
     “It’s evident that those in charge were more concerned about disciplining my brother for questioning medication practices rather than properly investigating the problems of overmedication,” Kirkpatrick said.
     Members of the committee agreed that, while the testimony of whistleblowers is important, Congress should take real action to correct the issues within the agency.
     “I hear a lot of talk, but we need to figure this out,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said.
     Sen. Ron Johnson, who chairs of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, assured Ernst that the committee would work to bring legislation forward to help protect whistleblowers in the VA.
     “We’re going to act on this,” Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said after the hearing. “The beauty of these hearings is that it does highlight it. I think it does create the environment, the willingness, the imperative for actually acting on a bipartisan basis.”
     The members of the committee were sympathetic to the first panel’s stories of whistle-blower retaliation and expressed their anger over the stories to the second panel, which included Linda Halliday, deputy inspector general for the VA; Dr. Carolyn Clancy, chief medical officer for the Veterans Health Administration; and Carolyn Lerner, special counsel with the Office of Special Counsel.
     Johnson slapped a report from the VA Office of the Inspector General on the desk in front of him while demanding to know who wrote the report, which detailed drug paraphernalia found in Kirkpatrick’s apartment.
     “I appreciate the testimony, I appreciate the assurances that whistle-blowers are a vital part that the OIG values whistleblowers, that reprisals are unacceptable, but that’s not the record,” Johnson told the second panel.
     Halliday and Clancy insisted the VA is working to improve its relationship with whistle-blowers and said they know the agency is not doing enough to take into account retaliation against whistleblowers.
     But Clancy was hesitant to say the way to end such retaliation would be by firing employees caught retaliating, since that course could instill “more fear” in a group of people already afraid of losing their jobs.
     The hearing faced a brief interruption as the senators went to vote on whether to end filibustering of a motion to proceed to a bill blocking abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and another on a defense-spending bill.
     Both failed, allowing the specter of a government shutdown to creep into the hearing. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asked Lerner how sequestration impacts the Office of Special Council and asked how a loss of funds would impact the agency tasked with helping whistle-blowers across the government.
     Lerner said during the last government shutdown she was forced to let 53 employees go.
     “You can’t expect the VA to do its work well, you can’t expect the IRS to have customer service, you can’t expect inspectors general to do their jobs thoroughly,” McCaskill said. “We certainly can’t expect whistle-blowers to have their cases adjudicated fairly and in an efficient manner if we are cutting the money that provides necessary personnel to do the work.”
     Despite trouble getting legislation through next door, Johnson was confident after the hearing that his committee would be able to get a bill protecting VA whistle-blowers passed.
     “Let’s find the areas of agreement, where there’s no dispute and let’s at least enact that,” Johnson said. “But I’d like to certainly enact as full a solution as possible here.”

%d bloggers like this: