Whistleblowers Say Retaliation Unabated Year into VA Scandal

VA employees Richard Tremaine, far right, and Dr. Christian Head, middle, told lawmakers Monday that the department's culture of retaliation against whistleblowers is still rife throughout the veterans healthcare system. (Stars and Stripes/Heath Druzin)
VA employees Richard Tremaine, far right, and Dr. Christian Head, middle, told lawmakers Monday that the department's culture of retaliation against whistleblowers is still rife throughout the veterans healthcare system. (Stars and Stripes/Heath Druzin)

WASHINGTON — Public shaming, demotions, verbal abuse. On Monday, Department of Veterans Affairs employees addressed lawmakers again about a culture of retaliation in the beleaguered agency that has been detailed during a yearlong scandal.

Employees said that despite the scrutiny and ongoing department overhaul, whistleblowers are still facing retaliation.

At a subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Monday, VA employees painted a picture of a workplace culture where speaking out comes at great cost, even as VA Secretary Bob McDonald has made their protection a top priority.

“The hostility they receive for their conscientious behavior shows that the retaliatory culture, where whistleblowers are castigated for bringing problems to light, is still very much alive and well in the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said. “The truth of the matter is, the Congress needs whistleblowers within federal agencies to help identify problems on the ground in order to remain properly informed for the development of effective legislation.”

Dr. Christian Head, who testified in July about wait time manipulation at the VA’s Greater Los Angeles Health Care System, said he has been demoted, embarrassed in front of patients and nearly turned away from an operating room while his patient was under anasthesia, awaiting surgery.

Head says in August he found that the locks had been changed on his office, and he was informed that he had been moved to a “tiny, dirty, poorly furnished closet-sized office” on a different floor. He said his supervisors have engaged in a continuous effort to undermine him since July, including preventing him from meeting with McDonald when the secretary visited the Los Angeles VA system earlier this year, saying his identification badge was expired.

When he complained of his mistreatment, he told Congressmen Monday, a supervisor told him, “If you don’t like it, you’re a whistleblower, take it to Congress.”

In submitted testimony, Head also detailed instances where he said employees experienced racial and religious discrimination.

Almost one year ago, the same committee detailed allegations of falsification of data and patients dying while languishing on secret wait lists. That helped uncover a systemwide failure in the care of veterans.

The scandal cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job, and his replacement, and McDonald, has faced a steady stream of revelations about improprieties across the country since taking over in July.

Richard Tremaine, associate director of the Central Alabama VA Healthcare System, said his superiors took away his leadership role and humiliated him and another whistleblower in emails sent systemwide after he reported malfeasance by system director James Talton, who was eventually fired after an investigation showed patient wait time manipulation Alabama VA hospitals.

“I speak with you today, with a heavy heart, disgusted by continued cover-ups, a discrediting campaign through open-ended investigations, and the attempted destruction of my career, by the very VA I have always loved being part of,” Tremaine said.

More than 25 VA whistleblowers have received legal settlements for retaliations related to the scandal and about 120 cases are still pending. Still, Carolyn Lerner, special counsel for the Office of Special Counsel, said that, while the VA is reforming, she expects 40 percent of the agency’s cases to come from the VA this year, far more than from any other agency.

“Despite this significant progress, the number of new whistleblower cases from VA employees remains overwhelming,” she said.

Meghan Flanz, director of the VA Office of Accountability Review, said protecting whistleblowers is a “key component” of VA’s mission but that “the department has had and continues to have problems ensuring that whistleblower disclosures receive prompt and effective attention, and that whistleblowers themselves are protected from retaliation.”

“It is an act of courage and it is something we in the department need to learn to celebrate,” she said.

But lawmakers weren’t satisfied with Flanz’s contrition, slamming the VA for not doing more to fire those who were responsible for the scandal, a long-running frustration. Only a handful of senior leaders implicated in wrongdoing have been fired and several others have been able to resign, sometimes with substantial pensions intact.

“It seems to me if you want to send a message that wrongdoers are going to be held accountable, you actually have to hold one accountable,” Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, said.

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