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VA whistleblowers, punished for revealing excessive opiate use and infestation, are exonerated

VA employees Richard Tremaine, far right, and Dr. Christian Head, middle, told lawmakers Monday that the department's culture of retaliation against whistleblowers is still rife throughout the veterans healthcare system.

HEATH DRUZIN/STARS AND STRIPES

By LISA REIN | The Washington Post | Published: July 24, 2015

After he reported a fly and pest infestation in the kitchen of a veterans hospital in Philadelphia, Troy Thompson was assigned to janitorial work and investigated for stealing stale sandwiches. Joseph Colon Christensen was told he was being fired after he notified Washington that the director of a dozen medical centers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands was arrested.

And in Tomah, Wis., Ryan Honl was stripped of his duties and locked out of his office after he disclosed that veterans were prescribed excessive prescription opiates.

These whistleblowers have now been exonerated by the office that investigates claims of retaliation against federal employees. The Office of Special Counsel announced this week that it has smoothed the way for the Department of Veterans Affairs to make amends to Thompson, Christensen and Honl with monetary settlements, reinstatements to their jobs and by purging their records of negative claims.

“Rather than silencing the messenger, supervisors can use disclosures as opportunities to address problems,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement. “It’s an important sign of progress that the VA settled these cases and provided relief to the employees who suffered retaliation.”

The employees, who shared harrowing experiences with investigators of being ostracized, harassed and punished for reporting their concerns about mismanagement, have plenty of company. The special counsel’s office says it has helped more than 45 whistleblowers with claims of retaliation by VA in the last two years, by getting their jobs back and, in some cases, securing compensatory damages.

Many employees have came forward in the aftermath of last year’s scandal over delays in patient care and fraudulent waiting lists disclosed by a whistleblower at VA’s hospital in Phoenix. Across the country, other employees have said they faced reprisals for reporting a range of concerns, including accounting irregularities, nursing shortages and mishandling of health-care funds, according to the special counsel.

Yet despite promises from VA’s new leaders in Washington to end the agency’s pervasive culture of punishing whistleblowers, retribution continues: The counsel’s office said this spring that it had received 111 VA reprisal cases involving health and safety issues across 36 states plus the District and Puerto Rico since Robert McDonald became VA secretary in July.

Here are some details about three employees whose resolutions were announced this week, according to the special counsel’s office:

 • Thompson, a food services manager with the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, reported to his supervisor in 2012 that the hospital was not taking action on disciplinary issues and several violations of VA sanitation and safety policies, including a fly and pest infestation in facility kitchens. That day, his boss put him on a detail to the pathology lab and began investigating him for eating and giving away four sandwiches that were going to be thrown out because they were stale. (The sandwiches were worth a total of $5).

His new job mostly consisted of janitorial work, including sanitizing the morgue and handling human body parts. After the investigation concluded he had stolen government property (the sandwiches), he was issued a proposed removal and fined $75.

Thompson spent two years in the pathology lab. VA eventually returned him to his job and rescinded the proposed firing. The agency also agreed to compensatory damages.

• Joseph Colon Christensen, an administrator at VA’s  Caribbean Health System in San Juan, reported concerns about patient care there. He also reported the arrest of the system’s director on drug possession and drunk driving charges. Last September, after a newspaper called the official to ask for comment on a story about his conduct, Colon was issue a notice of proposed firing. By December, VA had downgraded the notice to a three-day suspension, and he was reassigned.

Before his disclosures, Colon had an “unblemished disciplinary history” at VA and had received “outstanding” performance reviews, the special counsel said. VA agreed to several several corrective actions, including a repeal of his suspension, a return to his position and compensatory damages.

• Honl was a secretary in the mental health unit at the Tomah VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wis. In addition to other concerns, he disclosed alleged excessive prescription of opiates to patients to the inspector general’s office. That day, he was stripped of his job duties, locked out of his office and isolated  from his co-workers. Within a short time, he resigned. The agency settled his complaint with several corrective actions that included removing negative information from his personnel file and monetary damages. Honl, who testified before Congress about the retaliation he suffered, met with President Obama in Wisconsin earlier this month and asked him to go outside the agency to appoint a chief watchdog. Honl has started a blog about his experiences.
 

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