The drama in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues, with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) challenging the VA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). In a letter to the President, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner put the VA OIG in the spotlight over how it failed to fully investigate allegations of secret wait lists for mental health patients.
Allegations from two whistleblowers, Christopher Shea Wilkes and Germaine Clarno, were at the center of this latest confrontation. Their revelations over two years ago led to investigations by the OIG into their respective hospitals, but the OSC found those investigations to be “inadequate reviews that failed to address the whistleblowers’ legitimate concerns about access to care for mental health patients.”
Last July, the two whistleblowers sent a letter to the President with scathing criticism of the OIG, highlighting the “pattern of whitewashing and deceit by the VA OIG.” The letter went on to claim that the OIG had “utterly failed in its mission to keep order and integrity” in the VA and called for the removal of then-Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin. Just days later, Griffin resigned.
Lerner is blunt in her letter, writing that “the focus and tone of the OIG investigations appear to be intended to discredit the whistleblowers by focusing on the word ‘secret,’ rather than reviewing the access to care issues identified by the whistleblowers and in the OSC referrals.” While the “secret” part of the “secret wait lists” was indeed concerning, the manipulation of wait times was the real problem, Lerner argued, and that problem went unaddressed.
She also doesn’t spare the VA’s Office of Accountability Review, which had found that the investigations had “‘thoroughly’ and ‘fully’ addressed the issues raised by the whistleblowers.” Lerner directly contradicts them, saying that the VA reports “do not meet the statutory requirements and the findings do not appear reasonable.” In at least one case, the OIG report “does not include any discussion of patient wait times or recommendations for addressing the ongoing delays.” This is despite the fact that it verifies the claim that “a senior manager instructed schedulers to manipulate scheduling data to hide the actual wait times experienced by veterans.” Add to this the fact that, according to Lerner, the OIG refused to share the full investigative reports with the OSC, and you get the latest act in the ongoing saga of a watchdog that acts more like a lap dog—protecting the VA instead of nipping at its heels. Four days after Lerner published her letter, the VA OIG announced that it would begin to publish the summaries of wait time investigations on its website. While the additional transparency is an improvement, serious reform will only occur when a qualified and capable Inspector General is confirmed to head the office. The VA has been without a permanent Inspector General since the start of 2014—exactly 804 days as of this writing. The Project On Government Oversight found that:
A permanent IG has the ability to set a long-term strategic plan for the office, including setting investigative and audit priorities. An acting official, on the other hand, is known by all OIG staff to be temporary, which one former IG has argued “can have a debilitating effect on [an] OIG, particularly over a lengthy period.”
The VA has serious, deep-seated problems with intimidation and retaliation. Potential whistleblowers are being sent the message that they will be ignored by those who are supposed to help and retaliated against by those above them. Without a permanent leader in the OIG that champions whistleblower protections, it will be almost impossible to implement any real, long-lasting solutions. We urge the Senate to confirm IG nominee Michael Missal and to give the VA a fully functional watchdog.