The U.S. Office of Special Counsel on Monday said that Department of Veterans Affairs' medical inspectors routinely dismissed whistleblower allegations of sloppy care that endangered patients at VA hospitals.
In a six-page letter to the White House, Caroline Lerner listed 10 examples of allegations that were subsequently confirmed. She also noted her office has referred 29 of 50 whistleblower complaints to the VA for investigation.
"The VA, and particularly the VA's Office of the Medical Inspector, has consistently used a 'harmless error' defense, where the department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected," Lerner said. "This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans."
The result is that veterans' health and safety have been unnecessarily put at risk, she said.
Lerner said the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona -- where VA investigators confirmed whistleblower reports that veterans on a secret wait list for appointments died before getting care -- represents the "most serious" of examples where complaints were dismissed.
"Too frequently, the VA has failed to use information from whistleblowers to identify and address systemic concerns that impact patient care," he said.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson responded to Lerner's findings by ordering an immediate review of VA's Office of Medical Inspectors. He said it will be completed within 14 days.
In addition to looking at how the OMI handles and tracks recommendations, the review will cover personnel actions and designate a VA official to assess the conclusions and proposed corrective actions in the Special Counsel reports.
Gibson also emphasized the need to protect whistleblowers.
"Intimidation or retaliation – not just against whistleblowers, but against any employee who raises a hand to identify a problem, make a suggestion, or report what may be a violation in law, policy, or our core values – is absolutely unacceptable. I will not tolerate it in our organization," he said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the deaths of dozens of veterans across the country have been linked to delays in VA care and serious problems.
These include 35 veterans on a secret appointment waiting list maintained by staff at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, as well as veterans whose deaths were linked to management and procedure failures.
"It's impossible to solve problems by whitewashing them or denying they exist," Miller said on Monday. "OMI owes it to America's veterans and American taxpayers to provide an immediate and thorough explanation as to why it keeps reaching the same implausible conclusions in one report after another."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org,
Correction: An earlier version of the story referred to the U.S. Special Counsel as the White House Special Counsel.