VA health care workers say managers are trying to silence them on veteran care
By DONOVAN SLACK | USA Today | Published: June 25, 2019
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Health care professionals from the Department of Veterans Affairs testified at a congressional hearing Tuesday that they are being punished for reporting problems with VA care, to the detriment of veterans and despite proclamations by the Trump administration that whistleblowers are celebrated and not scorned.
A physician from the Phoenix area, a psychologist from Baltimore and a CT technologist from Iowa City, Iowa, said that they believe managers have retaliated against them and tried to stop them from disclosing more issues at VA medical centers.
Their claims, first made in interviews with USA TODAY last week, contradict assertions by agency leaders and President Donald Trump, who signed an executive order and a law creating a VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within months of taking office. The office, he said, would "make sure that they're protected."
But the VA inspector general has since launched an investigation of the office's handling of whistleblower cases. A report from the Government Accountability Office last year raised concerns about the office allowing employees accused of wrongdoing by whistleblowers to be involved in investigating the accusations.
The employees who testified Tuesday have a track record of raising concerns about VA health care – and all three have been stripped of patient care and oversight duties.
Mitchell reported inadequate training and triage in the emergency room of the Phoenix VA. Psychologist Minu Aghevli reported improper removal of veterans from wait lists for opioid-addiction treatment at the Baltimore VA. CT tech Jeffrey Dettbarn revealed administrators had been mass cancelling diagnostic test orders at the Iowa City VA without determining if veterans still needed the tests.
Dettbarn has been assigned to paperwork duties since his revelations in 2017, Aghevli was transferred to a data entry post in April and Mitchell has been kept from patient safety issues and oversight for nearly five years.
Mitchell said the retaliation against her and others who speak out has sent a signal to other VA employees to keep their mouths shut and "jeopardizes the health and safety of every veteran in the system."
Aghevli likewise said she feels her treatment is "being used as a threat against other employees" and has a "chilling effect" on their speaking up about problems.
“It has a terrible effect on veterans,” she said.
"For every person who wants to speak up, there are thousands that have tried, only to be removed, demoted, (and) silence(d)," Dettbarn said.
They recommended that more resources and staff be provided to an outside federal agency that helps whistleblowers, the Office of Special Counsel, and an independent board that vets employee disciplinary appeals, and an overhaul of the Trump-created office.
Advocates decry confusion
Jacqueline Garrick, founder of nonprofit peer-support group Whistleblowers of America, testified that they are not alone – almost 200 VA employees have contacted her since 2017 complaining of retaliation for speaking out about problems at the agency.
"VA employees are ignored, attacked," she said, adding that the new whistleblower office has not been the solution. "Instead, it causes more harm," Garrick said.
Tom Devine, legal director at Government Accountability Project, another nonprofit that helps whistleblowers, said the office lacks comprehensive regulations and instead works on an "ad hoc" basis.
"This maximizes confusion and enables arbitrary action," Devine said.
VA spokesman Randall Noller told USA TODAY last week that an assistant secretary who took over the office in January, Tamara Bonzanto, has been "working on a number of key improvements."
"These include providing timelier resolutions, more responsive recommendations and enhancing communications with whistleblowers," he said.
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