In past scandals, we learned how VA employees manipulated data to suppress evidence of long wait times at VA hospitals and to ensure bonuses for themselves. In National Public Radio’s (NPR) latest report, we see VA officials acting to ensure that the status quo of low performance is maintained - and theft is tolerated.
NPR’s recent report on VA scandal and retaliation against whistleblowers highlights how entrenched civil servants with a sense of entitlement have mastered the ability to manipulate the system for personal gain, a paycheck, and good retirement – all without having to work too hard.
In what employees call a “toxic work environment” that encourages bullying whistleblowers, the VA’s complete failure to discipline retaliatory acts and reward those who report wrongdoing continues unchecked.
Even more puzzling, efforts to repair the internal corruption have included asking VA officials to police and investigate their own misconduct.
Although honest, concerned VA employees who report misconduct are vital to safeguarding our nation’s veterans’ benefits and health care systems; the VA holds the record for the worst treatment of its whistleblowers among every government-funded program in the U.S.
Up to 40% of VA whistleblowers report problems with retaliation each year. Imagine those numbers if you include the victims who didn’t report it.
Toxic Work Environment Promotes VA Whistleblower Retaliation
NPR went into detailed coverage of the problem in June, sharing shocking stories from more than 30 VA doctors, nurses, administrators, and other employees – often veterans themselves - who report a “toxic environment” that fires, ostracizes and viciously harasses anyone who dares to report wrongdoing.
NPR’s story explained that VA employees who even mention concerns about wasteful spending, improper billing or dangerous, substandard patient care are subjected to an intolerable working environment, including:
- verbal abuse
- bullying outside of the workplace
- framing or making up misconduct to get potential whistleblowers fired
- managers pouring salt into employee’s coffee
- physical isolation
- psychological coercion tactics
- record falsification to prevent payment of benefits
- removing personal property like family photos and award medals from office spaces
Employees told NPR they were afraid to report employees who were drinking on the job, neglecting patients in need of care, not showing up for work, and even stealing food purchased with veteran appropriated funds to sell in a personal catering business.
One employee who reported the food stealing received anonymous threat letters saying, "This isn't the Army, where you had connections. This is the VA, and we will get you.”
Soon after, she was disciplined for “creating a hostile work environment” and “abuse of authority.” She was stripped of her authority for “inappropriate disciplinary actions against kitchen staff,” and terminated early this year.
Meanwhile, the employee who was stealing VA food for her catering business was never disciplined and retired with full benefits.
VA Asked to Police Its Own Actions
How has it gotten this bad? Affected VA whistleblowers say repeated inaction and poor whistleblower protection law enforcement have created a culture that condones the extreme mistreatment of whistleblowers.
Would-be whistleblowers learn quickly that keeping quiet is the only way to survive in a job at the VA.
But this treatment of whistleblowers is completely illegal. The federal Whistleblower Protection Act provides legal remedies for VA whistleblowers who experience retaliation for reporting:
- Abuse of authority
- Gross mismanagement
- Waste of funds
- Danger to public health or safety, or
- Violations of any law, rule or regulation
VA whistleblowers who are subjected to harassment, threats, demotion, suspension, job termination or other forms of retaliation can file a lawsuit for financial compensation and damages.
These recoveries can be significant, including compensation to cover lost wages, attorney’s fees, job reinstatement, and damages for emotional distress, along with orders to repair poor performance evaluations and remove suspensions.
Unfortunately, these protections don’t override the fear instilled in VA employees who are considering blowing the whistle.
To help resolve the ongoing problem, President Trump created the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protections (“OAWP”) in April 2017.
But the OAWP is an internal office, virtually incapable of punishing its own members and VA executives who are largely responsible for the retaliatory behavior. Instead, the OAWP has quickly become an internal filtration system, allowing VA officials to identify would-be whistleblowers and get them out of the way using whatever means necessary.
GAO Reports Failed First Year for OAWP
A recent report by the U.S Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) evaluating the success of the OAWP found that in the past 11 months:
VA Inspector General Peter O’Rourke stated he was deeply concerned by the failure of OAWP to provide requested information on employee retaliation complaints.
Even the OAWPs own recent annual report admits that the OAWP failed to discipline officials, reporting that, just 0.1% of all disciplinary actions were taken against senior executives in the past 11 months. Less than half of the recommended disciplinary actions against VA executives were actually carried out.
OAWP Independence, Strict Discipline, VA Whistleblower Incentives Needed
As the new VA Secretary Robert Wilkie takes the torch, it will be vital to promote zero tolerance for retaliation against whistleblowers. Any person who is shown to have participated in retaliation should be disciplined harshly and immediately – no exceptions.
In addition, for the OAWP to function at all in protecting VA whistleblowers, it must function independently from the VA itself – with complete separation from the VA Office of General Counsel.
Finally, the VA needs to promote the reporting of misconduct by rewarding good-faith whistleblowers with promotions, stellar personal evaluations, achievement awards, and well-deserved VA-wide recognition.
If we want to deliver on our promises to the men and women who chose to serve our country, we must protect and reward our VA whistleblowers for their efforts.
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