WASHINGTON – A former internist at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility in Phoenix claimed retaliation against whistleblowers is “alive and well” in the troubled healthcare system and that staff members fear losing their position if they raise problems.
Appearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, Dr. Katherine Mitchell testified that VA officials have a “vested interest in suppressing negative information” and that those who choose to speak out are in dire need of further protections.
The VA’s Office of Inspector General (IOG), Stevens said, “does not maintain whistleblower confidentiality, allows VA facilities to investigate themselves, does not conduct thorough investigations and whitewashes its reports.”
Mitchell said the IOG’s shortcomings left her “incredibly disappointed to the point of being horrified.”
The quality of medical service provided at VA facilities has been under a microscope since Mitchell and other staff members in Phoenix stepped forward to complain about inadequate care last year. An inspector general’s report released after the objections were raised uncovered evidence that 40 patients died while awaiting care in Phoenix, where employees kept a secret list of patients who faced prolonged delays in receiving necessary treatment. Those VA workers are thought to have concealed those wait times in an effort to enhance the facility’s performance.
Subsequent probes discovered similar problems at other VA medical facilities that serve almost 9 million veterans. The revelations led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May 2014.
An audit released by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that more than 57,000 veterans nationwide have been forced to wait 90 days or more for medical appointments at the agency’s facilities. About 64,000 more were included on the agency’s electronic waiting list for doctor appointments they requested. The VA’s stated goal is to arrange appointments within two weeks or less.
The audit scanned more than 730 VA hospitals and clinics and ascertained that supervisors were encouraging clerks to falsify records in 13 percent of cases.
Mitchell charged that she was removed as emergency room director in Phoenix after issuing complaints about understaffing and inadequate training. She subsequently reached a settlement with the VA, the terms of which have not been divulged.
Mitchell told lawmakers that the Office of Inspector General’s report on the system’s shortcomings “inexplicably failed to substantiate bullying behavior within the Phoenix VA Medical Center.”
“This was shocking to me,” she said. “As an employee within that facility for a total of 16-plus years I can unequivocally assert that bullying behavior and other harassment by mid-to-upper level managers permeated medicine, nursing environmental management service and the health administrative service at the facility for many years.”
Co-workers, she said, told her about “extensive harassment at the hands of management.”
Mitchell and other whistleblowers maintain the inspector general’s office has proved more likely to hassle those who report wrongdoing within the VA than it is to pursue senior officials.
Dr. Lisa M. Nee, who served as a physician in a VA medical facility near Chicago, said she “never experienced such overt disinterest in quality patient care, deliberately organized retribution towards exceptional employees and blatant disregard for universal guidelines, as well as our country’s laws, until I encountered leadership at the Hines VA in Illinois.”
Nee said “exposure to the corruption” occurred almost immediately after she assumed her duties – there was a year-long backlog of unread cardiac ultrasounds kept in boxes that she was expected to sort through.
“My shock turned to horror as I realized many of the veterans had suffered cardiac complications or already died after the study was performed, but prior to it being interpreted,” she said.
Leadership at the facility, she said, “was not only aware but also complicit with the cover-up.”
Through all this, Nee said she discovered that the OIG “has a penchant for accelerating retaliation against the truth-teller while failing the veterans by either ignoring the initial complaint or engaging in a cover-up.”
Nee also said she has been “on the receiving end” of retaliatory action from both the leadership at the Himes facility and the OIG, including “defamatory remarks made to the public regarding my integrity.”
VA Deputy Inspector General Linda Halliday, who assumed the post earlier July after the abrupt retirement of Richard Griffin, the target of much of the whistleblower criticism, said steps are underway to improve services in Phoenix and at other VA facilities.
The VA, she said, is requiring enhanced staff training for protecting whistleblowers. But she also defended actions taken by her office in the past, maintaining that at times whistleblowers “are not in a position to know all the facts, or they overemphasize the viewpoint.”
Halliday further stated that the OIG instigated probes into the backgrounds of whistleblowers to make sure “that all the bases are covered.”
Regardless, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the subcommittee chairman, wasn’t satisfied with the manner in which the VA is handling protection of whistleblowers.
“Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Nee expose a dark side of the VA that should have no place in our veteran’s healthcare,” Kirk said. “The American people will not stand to have our heroes treated as second-class citizens, receiving substandard care.”
As a result, Kirk announced that he is launching a whistleblower hotline for veterans and VA employees to report misconduct and poor care at local hospitals.