The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is currently investigating 37 complaints that claim whistleblower backlash has occurred at the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to a release that went public this past Thursday.
Investigators are looking into multiple allegations that the VA has failed to protect whistleblowers who reported improper and illegal conduct. Although the VA has of late been in the public eye owing to coverups relating to patient care delays, not all complaints related to that issue, according to a spokesperson for the Office of Special Counsel, which is a federal body tasked with safeguarding government employees against prohibited employment practices, such as whistleblower punishment. “They’re all related to patient safety, but not all have to do with appointment scheduling,” they explained, regarding the whistleblowing complaints.
The counsel has reported that it has already blocked the VA from committing to a number of disciplinary actions against whistleblowers who reported on issues relating to patient care, including an intended 30-day suspension without pay for a VA employee who had spoken up about the inappropriate use of patient restraints, as well as a planned demotion of an employee who forwarded information about mishandling of patient care funds.
“It takes courage and integrity for the individual who is either an employee or a member of the association to speak out against illegal conduct. It’s dangerous and difficult to be part of an organization and to speak against it under such a situation,” says Michael Maggiano at Maggiano, DiGirolamo & Lizzi. “When whistleblowers steps forward and legitimately accuses an organization of wrongdoing, he/she is placed in jeopardy frequently in proportion to the severity of the conduct the whistleblower has identified. Whistleblower protection is essential to encourage the reporting of misconduct, fraud, and corruption – to do otherwise only empowers the wrongdoers, and in the end erodes the fabric of our government and society.”
Last week, Eric Shinseki resigned from his position as the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs after information surfaced that the VA kept secret waiting lists in order to falsify reports on how long it took veterans to receive care from VA hospitals. The fake lists may have played a role in the deaths of at least 40 veterans, and many veterans have had to wait over three months in order to receive an appointment.
The special counsel’s office is investigating complaints coming from 28 different VA facilities, located throughout 18 states and Puerto Rico. “Receiving candid information about harmful practices from employees will be critical to the VA’s efforts to identify problems and find solutions,” said Special Counsel member Carolyn Lerner. “However, employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation.”