A year after the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal came to light, whistleblowers and lawmakers on Thursday lamented what they see as an absence of reforms and employee protections.
"This is the Veterans Affairs, a taxpayer-funded agency which is allowed to ignore the law and behave with brazen impunity," said Lisa Nee, a former cardiologist at an Illinois VA hospital who reported hundreds of unread tests and dozens of unnecessary surgeries.
At issue during the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing was the department's Office of Inspector General, tasked with investigating whistlblower complaints—especially after last year's revelations. According to witnesses, however, the OIG has failed to do so.
"Frankly, the malignant culture is so pervasive at the Phoenix VA in all levels of administration that there are only two reasons why an IG team would fail to substantiate bullying behavior," said Katherine Mitchell, the doctor who discovered the secret Phoenix wait-lists. "The first is that it deliberately chose to not look for the behaviors. Or the second: It has such poor investigative training skills that it could literally not investigate its way out of a paper bag."
Last month, acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin resigned amid accusations that he whitewashed his department's reports throughout the scandal's duration. The post is currently vacant.
"It's deeply disturbing that the administration continues to drag its feet on filling the inspector-general position at the VA … despite the crisis that exists within that agency," Republican Sen. Susan Collins said.
Linda Halliday, the deputy inspector general, now serves as the department's de facto director. Halliday announced several steps taken in recent weeks to apparently strengthen whistleblower protections, but she pushed back at arguments by whistleblowers that they should be allowed to remain anonymous when bringing complaints forward.
"In many cases, these referrals involve veterans' complaints regarding specific episodes of medical care, and it is not possible for VA to review the complaint without the OIG disclosing the identity of the complainant," Halliday said.
Whistleblower claims can be difficult to verify, she added. "Vague allegations often present a task akin to looking at a needle in a haystack."
But the whistleblowers weren't happy with this characterization. "It's much easier to kill the messenger than it is to fix the problem," said Mitchell, who submitted a 54-page written testimony for the record.
Nee testified that Griffin, the former inspector general, wrote a letter to Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, chairman of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, saying her claims lacked evidence. "They had evidence the first time, they had evidence the second time. They have two hours of testimony," Nee rebutted.
"You have to think about that," she continued. "Someone is putting, in a letter to a senator of the United States and then it goes out on a press release, that you are a liar."
When asked by Kirk if anything has changed at the Phoenix VA, Mitchell said, "Retaliation is alive and well. I have many friends … that are scared to speak up."
And when Kirk asked Nee about her VA hospital in Chicago, she said, "Nobody was held accountable for the allegations that were substantiated, except people were told not to do that again. So if that's someone's definition of accountability, then, I suppose 'yes.' "
Carolyn Lerner, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, said her agency is on pace to receive over 3,800 prohibited personnel-practice complaints from federal workers this year. Thirty-five percent of those will be from VA employees, she said, noting that the OSC resolved three VA whistleblower complaints last week.
"It shows how widespread this corruption is," Kirk commented.
"It's happening nationwide; that's right," Lerner replied.
Correction: An ealier version of this article misattributed a quote to Carolyn Lerner. That quote has been removed.