Staff members at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals across the country have been ignored, disciplined or even fired after speaking up about falsified appointment schedules and other improper practices.
A half-dozen current and former VA staff members including four doctors, a nurse and an office manager, told The New York Times they faced retaliation for reporting systemic problems. Some internal documents corroborate their accounts of a culture of silence and intimidation in the department.
The VA has a history of retaliating against whistleblowers, and Sloan D. Gibson, acting VA secretary, acknowledged this at a news conference in San Antonio, according to the Times. “I understand that we’ve got a cultural issue there, and we’re going to deal with that cultural issue,” he said. Punishing whistleblowers is “absolutely unacceptable,” Gibson said. Gibson replaced Eric K. Shinseki, who resigned last month over the scandal.
The federal Office of Special Council is examining 37 claims of retaliation against VA employees in 19 states, and recently persuaded the VA to drop disciplinary action against three staff members who had spoken out. The whistleblower complaints cover several dozen hospitals, and some date back seven years or longer, according to the Times. To cite just one example, Dr. Jacqueline Brecht, formerly a urologist at the VA Healthcare System in Anchorage, Alaska, said she argued with administrators about using phantom appointments to make wait times appear shorter, saying the practice amounted to medical fraud. Days later, Brecht said, she was abruptly placed on administrative leave, and escorted out of the building by security officers.
The number of retaliation claims by VA whistleblowers is among the highest of any federal agency, said Carolyn Lerner, who runs the Office of Special Counsel, and Congress has documented claims going back at least two decades, the Times reports. One technique the VA uses to silence whistleblowers, lawyers say, is to threaten to hold them in violation of patient privacy laws if they discuss medical cases.