Whistleblower says VA ordered fake appointments to cut waiting list
By JOE DAVIDSON | The Washington Post | Published: June 27, 2019
WASHINGTON — One day before Minu Aghevli testified at a House committee hearing about official Department of Veterans Affairs misconduct, she received a thick packet of documents that shook her life.
It amounted to a pink slip more than 170 pages long, including about 140 pages outlining reasons VA plans to fire her, according to Kevin Owen, her lawyer. The packet arrived on Monday. She testified on Tuesday.
Aghevli, 42, is a Washington D.C. native who has spent her entire 20-year career with VA. She is a clinical psychologist with a department opioid treatment program in Baltimore.
But the moniker that matters now for her is VA whistleblower. Aghevli has made disclosures that she said led department officials to dismiss her, despite her Gold VA Pins for excellent customer service.
Aghevli's allegations are serious. They include phony-wait-list assertions of the type that have bedeviled VA since it was consumed by a scandal that broke in 2014. She also accused department officials of lying to Congress.
"In order to reduce the wait list, I was instructed to improperly remove veterans from the electronic wait list by scheduling fake appointments for them in an imaginary clinic," she told the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations. "This clinic was not tied to any provider or location, nor did it actually correspond to any real visits. . . . The veterans scheduled for these fictitious appointments were not actually receiving VA care." Aghevli said she protested and did not do as instructed.
Other actions to seemingly reduce the number of veterans awaiting care, she said, included coding indigent patients as "care no longer needed" without confirming that.
When lawmakers demanded information about VA wait lists in September 2015, she said, "the VA deliberately sent these incorrect numbers to Congress."
The Office of Special Counsel has moved to block Aghevli' s firing while it reviews her case. This special counsel protects federal whistleblowers and is not related a better-known special counsel, Robert Mueller, who led a probe into Russia's interference in the 2016 elections.
Aghevli is not alone in making recent allegations about VA misconduct. At the House Veterans' Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee hearing, Chairman Chris Pappas, D-N.H., said the panel is investigating secret-wait-list charges made in a Federal Insider column last month by Jereme Whiteman, VA's national director of clinic practice management.
Only whistleblowers and their advocates testified at the hearing. Pappas said VA officials would be invited to a later session.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a letter to the panel expressed disappointment that officials were not included this week. "When the committee holds a hearing to air criticisms of the Department, while simultaneously preventing the Department from participating to offer context and defend itself," he wrote, "the Committee's efforts risk appearing more like a political news conference than a hearing aimed at a balanced look at serious issues."
VA did not respond to charges made at the hearing.
Jeffery Dettbarn, an Iowa City VA Medical Center employee, said he had an "unblemished record before blowing the whistle on the improper mass cancellation of what turned out to be tens of thousands of radiology orders."
The retaliation against him, he said, is a "banishment" from patient care as a radiologic technologist that began in July 2017 and continues. "My current situation is unbearable. . . . I am forced to forgo about one-third of my salary" because he no longer gets on-call pay. "But worst of all," he added, "the VA won't let me care for veterans."
Dettbarn said VA has attempted to fire him and also filed "bogus complaints to my licensing agencies. . . . All these allegations were unfounded, but these attacks are incredibly damaging and threaten my professional livelihood."
Charges like these led Tom Devine, legal director of the advocacy group Government Accountability Project, to tell the panel that VA "remains a free-speech Death Valley for government witnesses. . . . Retaliation is ingrained in the culture" of the department. Forty percent of the 25 whistleblowers he represents are VA clients, he said, "an extraordinary number for an agency that comprises less than 20 percent of the executive branch workforce."
Aghevli said the retaliation against her caused episodes of severe panic and prolonged tachycardia, an abnormally rapid heart rate. She is on medical leave. Testifying for the first time before Congress was nerve wracking. "I felt both horrified and heartbroken, but also relieved," she said, to have told her story.
Getting a notice of proposed termination the day before her testimony, when she told her office about it weeks before, was "deliberately intimidating towards me," she said in an interview, and an effort to frighten other whistleblowers.
Aghevli said she was removed from patient care in April, a few weeks after her complaint about a patient safety issue. She is eager to return to "my veterans."
"I love my job and the veterans that I treat," she told the subcommittee. "I can't imagine any job I'd rather do."
She might have to start thinking about that. VA doesn't want her anymore.