Last night, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs heard from whistleblowers about what Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Florida) called the “organizational cesspool” of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Four whistleblowers from across the country told the committee they had experienced harsh retaliation from superiors after they voiced concerns about the effectiveness and quality of health care for veterans. Retaliation included being placed on administrative leave, demoted and even docked pay.
Much of the testimony supported similar stories whistleblowers have told the Project On Government Oversight. POGO and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America launched VAOversight.org in May as a secure channel for whistleblowers to report VA abuses. Since then, more than 800 people have contacted POGO through the website.
The House hearing, “VA Whistleblowers: Exposing Inadequate Service Provided to Veterans and Ensuring Appropriate Accountability,” began with testimony from Dr. Jose Mathews, M.D., the former chief of Psychiatry at the St. Louis VA Health Care System. Mathews said that after discovering and reporting problems in his department, including that psychiatrists working under him were only seeing an average of six patients for a total of 3.5 hours per day during a full 8-hour work day, he was placed on administrative leave and moved to another VA location. He was in the process of implementing a real-time satisfaction survey for his patients that he hoped to use to improve care when he was removed from his position.
Mathews told the committee that if he had one wish for the department, it would be “data integrity.” The familiar phrase popularized by Mark Twain, “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” was referenced by two whistleblowers -- Mathews and Katharine Mitchell, a medical director in the Phoenix VA Health Care System -- to emphasize that statistical information from the VA is unreliable. Mathews however edited it to, “lies, damned lies, and VA statistics.”
Mitchell was moved from her position as head of a Phoenix emergency room to a social care center after her name was leaked to supervisors as the person who had contacted the VA Inspector General about inefficiencies. She says she has no idea who leaked her name and to her knowledge no investigation has been made to discover that information.
A similarly disheartening tale of whistleblower retaliation came from Dr. Christian Head, M.D., who works at the Greater Los Angeles VA. After testifying about co-workers falsifying time sheets, he says he was publicly ridiculed by his peers and labeled “a rat,” lost two weeks’ pay, and was transferred within the system. The VA Inspector General found that the co-worker Head testified against was guilty and recommended she be fired. But years later she remains in the same position, according to the testimony.
Retaliatory, anti-whistleblower culture is “a cancer to the VA,” Head said. “Most physicians and nurses and employees are disgusted and morale is very low… A few individuals perpetuate this idea that we should be silent…To be able to work for the veterans without fear of retaliation would be a great gift.”
The whistleblowers said that they continue work at the VA because they want to help veterans.
"As much as you love the veterans, the administration wears you down," Mitchell said, "and you begin to question your own professional abilities."
The panelists agreed that any VA employee who is found to have taken retaliatory action against another should be fired, but as Rep. Mark Takano (D-California) pointed out, that could in turn make it easier for supervisors to fire whistleblowers. The inherent conflict is an example of the systemic, structural problems that plague the VA and make finding a solution so challenging. Chairman Miller said his office is currently working on legislation to protect VA whistleblowers.