Veterans Affairs workers who complained to supervisors about quality of care, time-card fraud, mismanagement and excessive spending told lawmakers Tuesday that they faced a "culture of retaliation" that discouraged whistle-blowing in the long-troubled agency.
At a hearing held by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, several workers said their complaints about the VA's deficiencies were met with demotions, involuntary administrative leave, false accusations and unexplained withholding of pay.
“There exists a cancer within [VA] leadership,” said Dr. Christian Head, associate director and chief of staff of legal and quality assurance for the Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care System. He blamed the culture on “a few individuals that perpetuate this idea that we should be silent.”
Whistle-blowers said their concerns went beyond excessive wait times and fraudulent appointment books, which were revealed in an internal audit in May and have placed the VA at the center of a federal investigation.
Head said he was not paid for two weeks after he voiced support for a physician who Head says was wrongly terminated. He also said he was publicly humiliated and "labeled a rat" at a year-end work party after testifying in a separate time-fraud case.
Scott Davis, a program specialist at the VA’s National Health Eligibility Center, claims he was retaliated against when his complaint to White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors was leaked to his manager. He said he was placed on involuntary administrative leave after bringing attention to the backlog of 600,000 pending health applications and 40,000 unprocessed applications, many of which were from returning service members from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell, the medical director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Post-Deployment Center for the Phoenix VA Health Care system, said she faced backlash from nursing staff after she pointed out that illnesses like stroke or pneumonia were "routinely missed by inexperienced triage nurses." She said the retaliations were never addressed and affected her ability to care for patients.
Mitchell said it was “a bitter irony that [she] as a physician could not guarantee [veteran] safety in cosmopolitan Phoenix,” after the veterans had fought in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dr. Jose Mathews, the former chief of psychiatry for Veterans Affairs in the St. Louis VA facility, says he lost his title as chief of psychiatry after complaining to supervisors that physicians were using their time inefficiently.
“Psychiatrists were only spending 3-1/2 hours [per day] in patient care,” he said. “I could not account for the rest of their time.”
He also said that 60% of veterans did not come back for visits because they were dissatisfied with care.
Carolyn Lerner, special counsel to the Office of Special Counsel, a federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, said her division is investigating 67 retaliation complaints by VA workers in 28 states and 45 separate facilities. Because of the volume, the division dedicates over half of its staff to address VA whistle-blower complaints.
But in her testimony, Lerner suggested that attitudes have changed since the VA came under fire.
“There appears to be a new willingness to listen to complaints from whistle-blowers,” she said.
Last week, President Obama nominated former Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald to replace Erik Shinseki, who resigned last month in the wake of the VA scandal.
James Tuchschmidt, a top VA official, expressed dismay that whistle-blowers felt they were unable to bring their concerns to supervisors and apologized for recent mismanagement.
“We failed in the trust that America has placed in us to fulfill our mission,” he said. “Patients have waited too long and I would agree that it seems it took a whistle-blower and a crisis to expose the events and get us focused on correcting those deficiencies."
Tuchschmidt faced scrutiny from lawmakers who asked him to account for failure in VA leadership. He offered little defense.
"The stories I've heard tonight clearly depict, in my mind, a broken system," he said. "The sad part is that for every whistle-blower that comes out and says something, there is someone who is quiet. I apologize to every one of our employees who feel their voice has been silenced. I am disillusioned and sickened by this."
Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) recommended that the VA establish a long-term plan to notify employees of their whistle-blower rights and implement a system for tracking whistle-blower complaints.