VA ex­ec­u­tives who ig­nored whistle­blower com­plaints re­warded

$100K in bonuses given last year

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JACQUELINE KLIMAS

The Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs paid out more than $100,000 in bonuses last year to top ex­ec­u­tives at fa­cil­i­ties that ig­nored whistle­blower com­plaints of poor pa­tient care.

Whistle­blow­ers have played key roles in un­cov­er­ing sys­temic prob­lems at VA hos­pi­tals across the coun­try, re­veal­ing long wait times, cooked ap­point­ment books and bad treat­ment of vet­er­ans.

Al­though the VA later con­firmed many of the ac­cu­sa­tions, of­fi­cials of­ten failed to take re­ports se­ri­ously and, in some cases, re­tal­i­ated against the whistle­blow­ers, em­ploy­ees and govern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors told Congress on Tues­day.

“A prob­lem isn’t al­lowed to ex­ist within the Phoenix VA care sys­tem un­less se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tors of­fi­cially al­low it to be rec­og­nized,” Dr. Kather­ine Mitchell, an in­ternist who helped start the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, said in pre­pared re­marks to the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

“No mat­ter how crit­i­cal the is­sue is to pa­tient care or safety, se­nior of­fi­cials will de­lib­er­ately avoid the prob­lem by cov­er­ing up any ev­i­dence of de­fi­ciency,” she said.

VA em­ploy­ees said some who tried to raise warn­ings faced con­se­quences, in­clud­ing be­ing put on ad­min­is­tra­tive leave or shifted to desk du­ties.

Dr. Jose Mathews, a for­mer chief of psy­chi­a­try at the St. Louis VA fa­cil­ity, said he was rep­ri­manded for point­ing out to su­per­vi­sors that psy­chi­a­trists at the hospi­tal there worked only 3.5 hours a day.

“There is a sense of mis­sion that’s lack­ing, and I’m re­ally hop­ing that this com­mit­tee, with its pow­ers, will take ag­gres­sive ac­tion to make the re­tal­i­a­tion stop,” Dr. Mathews told the panel Tues­day evening. “With the data be­ing so cooked up and so un­be­liev­able, it’s ex­tremely im­por­tant that, while we work on data in­tegrity to make sure data re­flects re­al­ity, it’s ex­tremely im­por­tant people are able to step for­ward and speak the truth.”

Dr. Chris­tian Head, chief of staff at the Greater Los Angeles VA fa­cil­ity, said the prob­lem lies with lead­er­ship and that most VA em­ploy­ees found the VA ac­cu­sa­tions as “gut wrench­ing” as he did.

“I couldn’t sleep and I be­lieve there are a lot of people in the VA sys­tem who feel the same way,” he said. “But there is a cancer in lead­er­ship, a few people, that per­pet­u­ate this idea that we should be silent.”

The Of­fice of Spe­cial Coun­sel, which han­dles com­plaints from whistle­blow­ers over poor treat­ment, is in­ves­ti­gat­ing 67 cases at the VA, said Carolyn Lerner, who heads the of­fice. She said the num­ber in­creases daily and that 25 of those cases have been filed just in the past month.

“It is clear that the workplace cul­ture in many VA fa­cil­i­ties is hos­tile to whistle­blow­ers and ac­tively dis­cour­ages them from com­ing for­ward with what is of­ten crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion,” she said in her writ­ten tes­ti­mony.

A top VA of­fi­cial said he and his col­leagues try to take whistle­blower com­plaints se­ri­ously and are con­cerned about re­ports of re­tal­i­a­tion.

“We are deeply con­cerned and dis­tressed about the al­le­ga­tions that em­ploy­ees who sought to re­port de­fi­cien­cies were ei­ther ig­nored, or worse, in­tim­i­dated into si­lence,” Dr. James Tuch­schmidt, act­ing prin­ci­pal deputy un­der­sec­re­tary for health, said in pre­pared tes­ti­mony. “Let me be clear: VA will not tol­er­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where in­tim­i­da­tion or sup­pres­sion of re­ports oc­curs.”

But the $109,887 in bonuses awarded to se­nior ex­ec­u­tives at five VA fa­cil­i­ties un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for not tak­ing whistle­blower com­plaints se­ri­ously sug­gest bad be­hav­ior is of­ten re­warded.

“The people who get bonuses are the ones who just keep quiet and keep do­ing what they’re do­ing,” Dr. Mathews said.

Top-level em­ploy­ees at VA fa­cil­i­ties in Ann Ar­bor, Michi­gan; Buf­falo, New York; Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas; Har­lin­gen, Texas; and Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi, re­ceived bonuses to­tal­ing $109,887 in fis­cal 2013, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by the House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs’ Com­mit­tee, de­spite whistle­blower re­ports in­clud­ing un­san­i­tary equip­ment and im­prop­erly cre­den­tialed surgeons.

The fis­cal 2013 bonuses were paid Feb. 28, ac­cord­ing to the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeff Miller, Florida Repub­li­can, called for the next VA sec­re­tary to can­cel the bonuses in light of the depart­ment’s prob­lems.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.