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VA scandal: 3 whistle-blowers reach settlements with agency

Dr. Katherine Mitchell said she could no longer keep quiet about deficiencies at the Phoenix VA hospital even it meant putting her career in jeopardy. On Monday, officials announced that Mitchell and two others had settled their whistle-blower suits.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell said she could no longer keep quiet about deficiencies at the Phoenix VA hospital even it meant putting her career in jeopardy. On Monday, officials announced that Mitchell and two others had settled their whistle-blower suits.
(Cindy Carcamo / Los Angeles Times)

Three employees who complained about the troubled Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix have reached settlements with the scandal-scarred federal agency that runs the health system for veterans, it was announced Monday.

The employees were among the first to report shortcomings and face retaliation from officials, touching off a national furor that led to multiple investigations and the departure of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. Among the allegations was that the hospital covered up lengthy delays in supplying care for veterans.

The full details of the settlement were not announced, but the trio received what the U.S. Office of Special Counsel called “full and fair relief.” The settlements were described as the first result of the VA’s cooperation with the counsel’s office. More than 125 whistle-blower complaints from VA facilities around the country are still being investigated.

“In response to issues raised by whistle-blowers, the VA has introduced significant reforms, including overhauling its Office of Medical Inspector, establishing an expedited review process to provide relief to whistle-blowers, and creating an Office of Accountability Review. These three settlements are the first results of VA’s cooperation with OSC to quickly resolve whistle-blower retaliation complaints by VA employees,” the counsel’s office announced.

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Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a former co-director of emergency care at the Phoenix hospital; Paula Pedene, the hospital’s former chief spokeswoman; and Damian Reese, a program analyst, all filed retaliation complaints with the independent special counsel’s office. Mitchell lost her assignment. Pedene’s duties were taken away and her office was moved to the basement library. Reese’s annual performance review was downgraded after he reported that officials had manipulated patient records to avoid disclosing the long wait times.

“Dr. Mitchell, Ms. Pedene, and Mr. Reese followed their consciences and reported wrongdoing, and their efforts have improved care and accountability at the VA,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement announcing the settlements. “I applaud the VA’s leadership for taking actions to quickly resolve these cases and concrete steps to change the VA’s culture. The settlements allow these courageous employees to return to successful careers at the VA. VA leadership is sending a clear message: Whistle-blowing should be encouraged, not punished.”

“At VA, we take whistle-blower complaints seriously and will not tolerate retaliation against those who raise issues which may enable VA to better serve veterans,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, who replaced Shinseki, said in a separate statement. “We depend on VA employees and leaders to put the needs of veterans first and honor VA’s core values of ‘integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence.’”

Mitchell testified twice before Congress as it investigated complaints about the VA system. She and Pedene have accepted new assignments, and Reese will continue as a program analyst at the Phoenix hospital, officials said. Mitchell will oversee the hospital’s quality of patient care, and Pedene will work in the communications office of the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees VA healthcare.

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