Numerous reports of whistleblower reprisals trigger VA office overhaul
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 8, 2014
WASHINGTON — Jose Mathews became chief of psychiatry for the VA in St. Louis and quickly realized the department’s reported wait times for veterans seeking treatment did not match reality.
Deeply troubled by what he saw, Mathews raised $60,000 from private donors to conduct his own survey to help determine whether patients were getting timely psychiatric care at the city’s Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.
The VA launched an investigation of the doctor and immediately moved him from the management position to a new job evaluating compensation for mental disorders, said Mathews, who testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Tuesday evening.
Numerous reports of similar reprisals in the wake of a national scandal over access to care spurred the VA on Tuesday to announce an overhaul of its Office of Medical Inspector, which has been criticized by federal investigators for whitewashing complaints from whistleblowers within the department.
“They have already professionally assassinated me,” Mathews told House lawmakers investigating the reports of whistleblower reprisals. “Are we protecting the veterans or are we protecting the VA employees?”
There are now 67 active investigations into retaliation against VA whistleblowers in 28 states, said Carolyn Lerner, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent watchdog agency created to protect those who report wrongdoing in the federal government.
Lerner, who also testified before the House on Tuesday, said the VA often ignored or denied valuable whistleblower reports on threats to patient care that the OSC shared.
However, there have been recent encouraging signs that the VA is interested in fixing problems with how whistleblower complaints are handled, she said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced major changes in the office that handles the reports.
“Given recent revelations by the Office of Special Counsel, it is clear that we need to restructure the Office of Medical Inspector to create a strong internal audit function which will ensure issues of care quality and patient safety remain at the forefront,” Gibson said in a released statement Tuesday.
VA Chief Medical Inspector John R. Pierce, who served in the position for a decade, resigned June 30 under fire over the treatment of whistleblowers.
Gibson said the VA will appoint an interim director of OMI from outside that office to assist with an overhaul of how internal complaints and concerns over medical treatment are handled.
Meanwhile, the VA will suspend the OMI’s whistleblower hotline and refer all calls to the VA inspector general.
According to the whistleblowers who testified before the House on Tuesday, staff throughout the VA have been systematically ignoring concerns and discouraging reports of wrongdoing.
Another physician, Katherine Mitchell, the medical director for the Phoenix VA’s Iraq and Afghanistan Post-Deployment Center, said the department staff closed her off — nurses refused to communicate or provide needed help — when she reported serious shortcomings in emergency medical services.
The VA scandal began in late April, after a whistleblowing doctor reported that 40 veterans may have died because of delays in care at Phoenix.
In a pattern repeated with other whistleblowers, the VA transferred Mitchell to a new, unrelated position without addressing her complaints, she said.
Staff who make such reports not only risk their VA jobs but also their ability to get new employment elsewhere after being removed from positions within the department, Mitchell said.
“This is bullying; that’s what it amounts to,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said Mathews is one of “hundreds” of whistleblowers who have approached the committee about wrongdoing and reprisals since the scandal broke in late April.
During the House hearing, Miller strongly criticized what he called an “organizational cesspool” within the VA that prized protecting managers over veteran care and led to preventable deaths at facilities across the country.
“In every one of these locations, whistleblowers played a vital role in exposing misconduct within the department,” Miller said.