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OPINION

Victims say VA whistleblower retaliation growing, despite Trump rhetoric

By JOE DAVIDSON | The Washington Post | Published: October 30, 2017

When President Donald Trump talked about the importance of protecting “our great, great people, our veterans,” during a White House meeting in March, he said, “No more games going to be played at the VA.”

At a White House briefing on Trump’s executive order to improve whistleblower protection in April, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said, “The message is clear that we will not tolerate whistleblower retaliation in the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Well, nine months into the Trump administration, that message is not clear, and games continue to be played. Not only does the cancer of VA whistleblower retaliation remain active, but it’s also growing, according to employees who have suffered its sting.

Hear Katherine Mitchell, a VA physician in Phoenix:

“Although I do have a good relationship with my current immediate supervisor, the overall … retaliation in my current job worsened in January 2017 and continues unabated. The overt retaliation from VA Central Office (VACO) also worsened under the Trump administration.

“In my opinion, based on my experiences and conversations with other VA whistleblowers, since President Trump was elected, it appears to be open season across the nation on VA whistleblowers despite the passage of the [VA] Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017,” she added, writing in an email. “VACO is dragging its feet on resolving whistleblower retaliation claims.”

Mitchell and Christian Head, a doctor in Los Angeles, two prominent VA whistleblowers, say the retaliation they suffered under the Obama administration still infects their lives and stymies their careers. The two physicians were among those who exposed major problems in VA hospitals to Congress. A department secretary lost his job because of the scandal, which broke in 2014, over the coverup of long patient wait times. It disgraced the department — despite its many good works — and imposed a shame it still can’t shake off.

In response to Mitchell and Head, department press secretary Curt Cashour said, “VA does not tolerate retaliation. Any employees who feel they are experiencing retaliation should contact the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.” He would not discuss individual cases without the written permission of Mitchell and Head.

In April 2015, Head said at a House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee hearing that he saw patients’ requests for medical care, known as consults, being removed to reduce the number of patients on the wait list. “I witnessed the direct batch deletion, the order given by my immediate supervisor,” he said then, “of 40,000 consults.”

In December that year, Mitchell told a Senate Veterans’ Affairs field hearing outside Phoenix about “dangerous ED (Emergency Department) patient safety defects,” including “a significant lack of nurse triage training, and inadequate nursing triage protocols” and the Phoenix VA hospital’s “dysfunctional institutional culture.” The hospital was at the scandal’s epicenter.

Head is a noggin and neck surgeon at the West Los Angeles Medical Center, the largest in the VA’s system. In addition to his doctor’s duties, Head is the associate director-chief of staff for quality assurance, but it doesn’t mean much. Head said the continuing retaliation against him includes “isolation, so I’m not really doing leadership duties at the hospital,” in addition to actions affecting patient safety.

“The retaliation against me has been consistent and unrelenting,” he said in a letter sent to Shulkin last month. “I have been isolated, my medical expertise marginalized and my medical career damaged. I also suffered a heart attack while at work during several retaliatory events.”

He once had a C-suite office but now sits in a former storeroom with a hole in the floor and a broken monitor, according to Head’s letter. He is no longer a member of the Medical Executive Committee.

“I was in the executive suite,” he told the Federal Insider, “right next to the chief of staff.” He kept his title, but few of its duties. “There’s a clear plan to keep me isolated, to keep me in a little box, to keep me from progressing.”

Mitchell also can list continuing retaliatory measures, including her complaint that VA breached an agreement to settle her grievances. She formally complained about the breach in June but said she has received no response. Among other things, Mitchell said she has not received promised training and mentorship. Also, she said the VA “deliberately misled me in the negotiation process to believe” that her job of specialty-care medicine consultant was full-time, when it is a quarter-time position.

“I remain with no assignments,” she said, “except what I can scrounge up on my own in my cubicle.”

Then “in August, the executive director of Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) enthusiastically offered me a 4 month detail to the OAWP and I accepted,” Mitchell said by email. But last Wednesday, “I received a 2 sentence email from him stating he ‘would not be moving forward with the detail.’ No explanation was given and he has not answered my subsequent email” requesting one.

Trump created the office with his April executive order, and it was codified with a law enacted in June. Whistleblower advocates are skeptical of such in-house offices, considering them Trojan horses used to identify whistleblowers for retaliation as much as protect them.

The Washington Examiner reported in June that Scott Davis, an Atlanta VA whistleblower who testified alongside Mitchell and Head three years ago, was stripped of his duties.

Mitchell said: “There is a great deal of fear among whistleblowers.”

Joe Davidson writes The Washington Post’s Federal Insider column.

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