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VA whistleblowers detail retaliation at hearing

Four whistleblowers testified at a House hearing on the obstacles to reporting wrongdoing at the embattled VA.
The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix, May 29, 2014
The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix on May 29, 2014.

Transfers, harassment, altered personnel records, mysterious breaks between paychecks.

Those are just some of the forms of retaliation described by four whistleblowers from four different regional VA systems, who testified Tuesday night before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The hearing is likely to add to current Veterans Affairs secretary nominee Robert McDonald's long list of agency problems that have come to light since news of the VA scandal broke in April.

In addition to the testimony from three doctors and one program specialist at Atlanta's Health Eligibility Center, the committee has many other examples of retaliation against whistleblowers, according to Buzzfeed. In one case, a woman suffered a stress-related heart attack after resigning from her position and moving away from her family to find a new job.

Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who served as the Medical Director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Post-Deployment Center in the Phoenix VA Health Care System, testified on Tuesday that as head of the emergency department, she saw many serious errors due to understaffing, but that her concerns went unaddressed. "It is a bitter irony to me that I as a physician could not guarantee [patients'] safety in the middle of cosmopolitan Phoenix," she said. Mitchell said she was placed on involuntary administrative leave and investigated for including some patient information in confidential Inspector General complaints.

Another witness, Dr. Christian Head who worked at the Los Angeles VA, spoke of attending a holiday party after testifying in a fraud case and seeing a Powerpoint slide mocking him, a photo of him giving the camera a middle finger with a VA IG phone number included. “I was labeled a rat," he said, nearly choking up.

Scott Davis, a worker at the Atlanta Health Eligibility Center, which processes applications to join the VA health system, also described facing harassment after contacting Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who completed a comprehensive review of VA policies in June. Davis insisted that there be greater accountability for managers who have the power to punish employees who report possible wrongdoing. 

This hearing follows one in May at which Veterans Affairs officials faced off against furious members of Congress over the agency’s delays in complying with a subpoena for records related to scheduling failures in the Phoenix VA system. According to allegations from a retired VA doctor, at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care thanks to a scheduling system that kept individuals off the official VA patient waiting lists.

While the House committee and its chair, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida,  eviscerated VA officials over those delayed records, Miller and his fellow Congress members could take a more sympathetic approach Tuesday. In May, the Veterans Administration Inspector General issued a subpoena for a list of whistleblowers collected by POGO and IAVA, insisting that they needed the names in order to investigate the claims.

IAVA and POGO have refused to hand them over, saying they made a promise to keep the whistleblowers' identities secret and that the VA could investigate the allegations without knowing who lodged them. Nearly a month after the deadline to comply with VA Inspector General’s subpoena, nothing has happened, and no lawmakers have called for the groups to hand over the list.

The government already has dozens of VA whistleblower complaints to investigate; on June 23, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) sent a letter to President Obama and Congress stating it had received more than 50 complaints, and that it had already referred 29 of them to the VA for investigation.

In that letter, OSC singled out the Office of the Medical Inspector (OMI) for ignoring the severity of many complaints. The OMI, the letter alleged, too often employed a "'harmless error' defense, where the Department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected. 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."

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced Tuesday that in response to OSC's recommendations, the Medical Inspector's office will be restructured. New leadership and a new structure are needed "to create a strong internal audit function which will ensure issues of care quality and patient safety remain at the forefront," according to a VA statement.

An OMI official also appeared before the committee Tuesday night.

According to the groups that collected the tips at a special website, protecting against retaliation is one more urgent issue for the VA and its incoming leaders to address. IAVA Chief Policy Officer Tom Tarantino told msnbc in an email, "These brave men and women who have come forward with stories of wrongdoing at VA facilities across the country are uncovering these issues in the hope that the government enacts change. And that’s why IAVA partnered with POGO in May with a secure website to ensure whistleblowers are safeguarded."

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Congress's longest-serving independent, is scheduled to meet with Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert McDonald on Tuesday afternoon. The White House sent McDonald’s nomination to the Senate on Monday. When McDonald was announced as Obama’s pick, Sanders and other legislators were restrained in their responses, focusing on the broad scope of the VA’s problems and the need for swift and decisive action.

Decisive legislative action is still in the works. Sanders led efforts to pass a bill aimed at reforming the VA and adding health facilities and medical staff, as well as improving other veterans’ benefits. A conference committee is currently negotiating compromises between reform bills passed in the Senate and House.

There is still no date for McDonald’s confirmation hearing. Congress is in recess for the month of August, and both the House and Senate are expected to focus on the November election after they return.