The Latest Backlog at the VA: Whistleblower Complaints

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In this March 31, 2015, file photo, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Oregon. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
In this March 31, 2015, file photo, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Oregon. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Members of Congress expressed concern and curiosity about the reason for a "significant" backlog in resolving the Department of Veteran's Affairs' whistleblower complaints.

The VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection has 572 investigative cases that are more than 120 days old, with "many" that have been open for one or two years, Assistant Secretary Dr. Tamara Bonzanto testified in a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing Thursday.

She said she plans to eliminate the backlog by the end of 2020 by hiring ten more investigators.

But for some representatives, like Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, the issue is more than just the backlog, but what's causing so many VA staff to file complaints with the office in the first place.

"The whistleblower is a symptom of a larger problem," Hurd said. "So my question is, what is the larger problem that's not being addressed that's driving so many whistleblowers?"

Bonzanto said since she began in the OAWP earlier this year, the biggest obstacle has been changing VA employees' fears that their concerns won't be taken seriously or they will be punished for reporting.

"Since then, we've been working to improve the culture where employees feel comfortable raising concerns through their supervisory chain," she said. "Are we there yet? No. Change takes time. Changing a culture in a large organization takes time."

Bonzanto also said OAWP's new case management system will eventually enable the office to spot similarities in the whistleblower complaints so they can identify system-wide problems. What they know so far, she said, is most complaints have come from the Veterans Health Administration staff, but that could be attributed to the fact it's the VA's largest work force.

VA Office of Inspector General staffer Michael Missal agreed about the culture of mistrust, saying he's noticed "a number of employees" in the three and a half years he's been there who believe they can't raise issues to their supervisors.

"That's why I feel so strongly that all VA staff should have training on ways they can bring their concerns forward without retaliation," he said.

Missal added the OIG has developed a training program that shows where VA staff can go if they have a concern and he hopes the VA will have it available for every employee.

"We think things like that, education, communication can help people feel empowered to come forward," he said.

Related: Scathing IG Report Details VA's Whistleblower Protection Office Failures

Meanwhile, lawmakers also discussed some of the issues raised in an OIG report released in October that found the office had not adequately protected whistleblowers' identities or saved them from retaliation.

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, called the matter "incredibly disturbing."

"We've been trying for years to help - to ensure that the VA gets its act together," she said before listing past VA issues like wait times for health care appointments, "and now you have not just a broken OAWP process but one that appeared to have been intentionally broken by the senior leadership."

The VA said the OIG findings are from the previous leadership and the office is training its investigators, contacting whistleblowers more frequently and will have a standard operating procedure by the end of the year.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com.

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