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GAO: VA’s erratic handling of employee misconduct claims could hurt veterans

The headquarters building of the Department of Veterans Affairs as seen on June 28, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 20, 2018

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t have a system to track disciplinary actions.

Case files are missing documentation.

VA whistleblowers are more likely to be punished than their peers.

These findings were among others documented in a lengthy report issued Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency.

And if such concerns aren’t addressed, VA worker misconduct can have serious consequences for some veterans, including poor quality of care, the agency said in its 103-page report.

“Because of past reports of poor care that veterans were receiving at VA hospitals and to the extent that there are medical providers in VA hospitals that are involved in that conduct, and the agency is not appropriately dealing with them, that could have negative consequences on those veterans receiving care at those hospitals,” said Kathryn Larin, a director at the GAO.

The findings are the latest indication of the ongoing turmoil at the VA, as it faces questions of mismanagement, turnover concerns and awaits the appointment of a new secretary since the position was left vacant in April. The GAO, which is an investigative arm for Congress that routinely reviews U.S. agencies and programs, said it reviewed a sample of 544 out of 23,622 employee misconduct files.

The GAO found in its review that the VA’s system for tracking misconduct claims is fragmented, and it can only track certain types of misconduct departmentwide. There are also data-reliability issues in collecting the information, the report stated.

“Without collecting reliable misconduct and disciplinary action data on all cases department-wide, VA’s reporting and decision making on misconduct are impaired,” the agency wrote in the report.

The agency also found case files were missing documentation, and it inconsistently adhered to its own guidance for documentation retention. The GAO estimated the VA could not account for 1,800 employee misconduct case files, and another 3,600 didn’t contain required documentation showing workers were adequately informed of their rights during their adjudication process, such as the right to be represented by an attorney.

“The absence of files and associated documentation suggests that individuals may not have always received fair and reasonable due process as allegations of misconduct were adjudicated,” the agency reported. In addition, “VA’s Office of Human Resource Management does not regularly assess the extent to which files and documentation are retained consistently with applicable requirements.”

The agency also found the VA doesn’t consistently examine whether misconduct allegations are reviewed according to their own investigative standards and that the officials are held accountable. Based on a review of 23 alleged cases of senior official misconduct, the VA did not include sufficient documentation for its findings or provide a timely response to the VA Office of Inspector General, the GAO wrote.

The VA inspector general also does not have a policy in place to verify the completeness of such investigations.

In addition, the VA did not always take measures to ensure that senior officials were held accountable for substantiated misconduct claims. Out of 17 substantiated cases, proposed disciplinary action wasn’t taken in five, the GAO found.

Last year, a new office was created by law within the VA, the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, to handle complaints involving senior officials.

The GAO also found from 2010 to 2014, whistleblowers were 10 times more likely than their peers to see disciplinary action within a year of their complaint.

“Data and whistler-blower testimony indicate that retaliation may have occurred at the VA,” the report stated. “Individuals who filed a disclosure of misconduct with the Office of Special Counsel ... received disciplinary action at a much higher rate than the peer average for the rest of VA.”

The GAO detailed more than a dozen recommendations for the VA to improve its handling of employee misconduct claims in the future. Among them, the agency recommended the VA develop and implement a system to collect complete and reliable worker misconduct claims department-wide, install a system to audit the files to ensure proper documentation, ensure the new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection reviews details connected to evidence in senior-official cases and verifies disciplinary action has been taken.

In addition, the new agency can develop procedures to ensure that whistleblower investigations are reviewed independently and whistleblowers are treated fairly and protected against retaliation.

The VA concurred totally or in part with each of the 16 recommendations the GAO listed in its report.

In some cases where the GAO made a specific recommendation to boost oversight by department heads and others, the VA disagreed, and opted to place that new responsibility with the new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection instead. It also said a current VA-wide discipline tracking system used by the new office would eventually be phased out and replaced by a new system.

Curtis Cashour, a VA spokesman, said the concerns mentioned in the report have improved under the administration of President Donald Trump, who signed into law a plan to create the new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, or OAWP.

“We appreciate the Government Accountability Office’s oversight,” he said. “The first office of its kind in the federal government, OAWP has changed dramatically the way VA handles accountability and whistleblower issues, ensuring adequate investigation and correction of wrongdoing throughout the VA, and protecting employees who lawfully disclose wrongdoing from retaliation.”

Read the full report below.

Read the full report below.

grisales.claudia@stripes.com
Twitter: @cgrisales

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