Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said he is "dismayed" at the ongoing retaliatory culture against VA employees who speak out.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said he is "dismayed" at the ongoing retaliatory culture against VA employees who speak out. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

VA's Handling of Whistleblowers Continues to Irk Lawmakers

Doctor reassigned to storage closet despite agency’s new cooperation with Special Counsel.

Quality of life for head and neck surgeon Dr. Christian Head has done little but deteriorate since last July when he gave testimony to a House panel on a “climate of fear and intimidation” of whistleblowers at the West Los Angeles veterans health care campus.

“My leader has been reassigned outside West L.A., and I’ve never met the new one, while my patients have been reassigned mid-therapy,” Head told the House Veterans’ Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Monday. His operating room credentials were revoked, and he was removed from his office and transferred to “what the cleaning crew said was a former nurse’s storage unit,” the entrance to which he soon found covered with sheet plastic, effectively rendering him without an office.

“I was told, if you don’t like it you can take it up with Congress,” Head testified, as he repeated allegations made during the patient wait-times manipulation scandal that shook the Veterans Affairs Department last year. He said he witnessed systematic deletions of 179 consults, most by non-medical staff, which is three or four times the number of cancelled veterans appointments reported at the VA’s Phoenix medical center, where the scandal started.

Such apparent retaliation from angry managers prompted subcommittee Chairman Mike Coffman, R-Colo., to say he is “dismayed” that, despite enactment of legislation making firing easier and the arrival of new Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald, “hostility toward whistleblowers and the retaliatory culture is still very much alive at VA.”

In pressing for new legislation to prevent retaliation at VA  -- H.R. 571 introduced by full panel Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. -- Coffman said, “retaliation is still a popular means for some VA employees to prevent change.” Those who engage in retaliation, he warned, “shouldn’t be working for the VA and should not receive a bonus.”

At the hearing featuring three whistleblowers and two executive branch officials, ranking member Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., pointed to “a great deal of progress” at VA, noting the establishment of the department’s new Office of Accountability Review and VA being the first agency to satisfy whistleblower policy requirements for programs to combat retaliation from the Office of Special Counsel. “But there are still too many problems,” Kuster added, noting that 40 percent of Special Counsel cases in 2015 are from the VA, 150 percent above historical levels. “Some [of those cases] reflect the size of the VA, but it is systemic,” she said.

There’s lots of waste and fraud and abuse that threatens the health and safety of veterans, Kuster added. “And the VA sometimes investigates the whistleblowers themselves rather than the case,” she said.  [Attempts] to discredit through intimidation and investigations intended to silence whistleblowers through sham peer reviews remain. There’s a lack of collaborative spirit between VA leaders and employees. This culture must change.”

In some cases, lawmakers were shocked to learn, whistleblowers’ medical files were examined by their superiors.

 VA’s defense came from Meghan Flanz, director of the new Office of Accountability Review, who said “the obligation to protect whistleblowers is an integral part of our program, including protecting against retaliation.” Secretary McDonald “talks frequently about sustainable culture in which people share what they know,” she said. The accountability office, working with the Special Counsel, is “committed to educating employees and taking corrective action to speed the process,” she said, citing a “robust face-to-face” training program. “The secretary meets with whistleblowers as he travels to model the behavior expected,” Flanz said.

But lawmakers scolded Flanz after all three whistleblower witnesses testified that McDonald had not met with them during his stops at their facility, for varying reasons of timing. And Coffman expressed frustration that Flanz could count only three senior leaders who’d been terminated after investigations showed they’d retaliated against whistleblowers. She reported 80 ongoing investigations by her office, 15 of which involve whistleblower retaliation. Flanz said she was familiar with the ongoing cases of the three witnesses at the hearing, but could not discuss them in public due to privacy concerns.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner reported that her office had obtained settlements and relief for 45 whistleblowers at VA. “There’s been substantial progress, and putting people back in their jobs sends a message to others that they’re protected,” she said. “It’s crucial that the cases be addressed swiftly and promptly, and the key is the proper functioning of the Office of Medical Inspector, she said, an office that was more passive under previous Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. She agreed that VA “too often focuses on the whistleblower instead of their disclosure. The health and safety issue may not receive proper attention, and future whistleblowers could be chilled.”

Lerner added: “I’m encouraged that people feel confident they will get some relief, but it’s a double-edged sword because my staff is overwhelmed by the work.”

 Dr. Maryann Hooker, a neurologist and union president at the Wilmington, Del., VA Medical Center, said in her experience “extended reprisals for exposure of waste and fraud continue unabated, and retaliation is too convenient a weapon to be used without severe consequences.” She called the VA “a house divided,” adding that the fate of whistleblowers and the care for veterans are “inextricably linked. What is the evaluation for success?” she asked. “Are efficiency and expediency the only things?”

Richard Tremaine, associate director at the troubled VA Central Alabama Healthcare System—whose top Senior Executive Service leader was forced out last year for neglect of duty, described his recent arrival as a unending series of acts in which his direct reports  “bypass and exclude me—an attempted destruction of my career at VA” by people continuing what he called a cover-up of patient schedule manipulation and improper hiring. “In my first year, 305 of 365 days were spent under review by an Administrative Investigation Board, with no charges against me,” Tremaine said. When he complained, his supervisor told him he could file a Freedom of Information Act request. His lifeline, he added, was help from the Office of Special Counsel. “When people think of whistleblowers, they think of it as negativity,” Tremaine said. “But we have to embrace the whistleblower instead of retaliating.”

Dr. Head, though he continues to report retaliation to the Special Counsel, says he is disappointed. “Moving to that storage bin made me feel bad, but it was a message to everyone saying, ‘Look at Dr. Head, he spoke to Congress.’ They isolate, defame and then rewrite history, sending out a surrogate to say the person’s a bad doctor. The mistake I made was allowing them to push me out of patient care, but I’m stronger now.” Whistleblowers, in Head’s views, should be seen as “patriotic.”