The Official of Special Counsel on Thursday announced it is looking into 37 cases of possible retaliation against whistleblowers at the Veterans Affairs Department, some involving precisely the type of complaints that triggered the current VA controversy.
The announcement came as acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson traveled to Phoenix to visit staff at the medical center where charges first surfaced that patients were kept on secret waiting lists by managers doctoring the dates to collect efficiency bonuses.
The complaints to OSC come from employees and facilities in 19 states, and were announced after the small independent agency blocked disciplinary actions against three VA employees after they disclosed alleged wrongdoing in veterans patient care. At OSC’s request, the VA agreed to stay the proposed discipline to allow OSC to further investigate the reprisal claims.
“OSC appreciates the VA’s cooperation in providing interim relief to these employees,” stated Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. “Receiving candid information about harmful practices from employees will be critical to the VA’s efforts to identify problems and find solutions. However, employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation.”
In the last fiscal year, OSC has obtained 14 corrective actions on behalf of VA employees. It plans to continue to seek relief and protection for VA whistleblowers where the facts and circumstances support their claims, the agency said.
In one case, OSC in early May obtained a stay of a proposed 30-day suspension without pay for a VA employee who reported the inappropriate and continuous use of patient restraints in violation of VA rules and procedures. The employee had never before been disciplined in more than two decades working for the VA, the special counsel said in a statement, though the case remains open.
In a separate case, a VA employee was given a proposed seven-day suspension after telling the inspector general about improper scheduling and coding procedures at the facility. The employee also alleged that the VA lowered the employee’s performance evaluation and reassigned the employee in retaliation for disclosures to the IG.
In a third case, OSC obtained a stay for a VA employee in December 2013 after the employee was temporarily reassigned out of a position and then faced demotion after disclosing the mishandling of patient care funds. That investigation continues.
In all, OSC is currently reviewing 49 disclosures related to scheduling improprieties and other potential threats to patient safety at VA facilities, for a total of more than 80 pending claims by VA employees.