Whistleblowers who call attention to the culture of corruption at the Department of Veterans Affairs deserve thanks for standing up for veterans. It was VA employees who exposed the secret wait list scandal at the VA Health Center in Phoenix after they became concerned about the treatment of veterans.
Since then, more than 50 whistleblowers have spoken up about waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement at VA facilities around the country. But instead of appreciation, many VA employees who speak out face retaliation from their bosses—and they say the problem is getting worse.
Dr. James Andrews is a highly-specialized doctor of neurotology at a VA hospital in Los Angeles. But Dr. Andrews told the Washington Examiner he has been facing retaliation—including a pay cut—ever since he submitted complaints about overloaded clinics. After he contacted the VA again six weeks ago, Dr. Andrews was told he was being fired. The VA also demanded he waive his right to sue or risk losing the 25 years of pension benefits he had earned.
Dr. Christian Head is worried he might be next. A former colleague of Dr. Andrews, Dr. Head once testified before Congress about conditions at the VA where he works. Head told the Washington Examiner he’s “scared” VA administrators will begin targeting him next for speaking out. “Whistleblowers are getting crushed,” Dr. Head said.
Whistleblowers are cautiously optimistic about the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection President Trump created recently. But without Congress passing new legislation, the office won’t have power to hold bad VA employees accountable or protect whistleblowers who come forward.
Eric Hannel, who worked for the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, told the Washington Examiner that conditions for whistleblowers aren’t improving. “The VA’s going after these guys with a vengeance,” he said. “VA must properly address this retaliatory behavior or it will continue to have a shortfall of physicians as established physicians will leave and new physicians will not join VA’s corrosive culture.”
Thankfully, a bipartisan coalition of senators recently introduced the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017. In addition to boosting protection for whistleblowers who come forward, the bill gives the VA Secretary the authority to begin cleaning up the culture of corruption.
The bill would shorten the length of time it takes to fire bad employees and keep employees who are in the process of being fired off the VA payroll. The bill also gives the VA Secretary the authority to take back bonuses of VA staffers who engaged in misconduct, and reduce the pensions of VA employees convicted of felonies related to their employment at the VA. A similar bill passed the House with bipartisan support earlier this year.
Until Congress acts, the VA will continue its pattern of putting bureaucrats ahead of the veterans it should be serving. Without enhanced whistleblower protections, many employees who witness misconduct may choose to remain silent out of fear of retaliation.
VA Secretary David Shulkin recently took the unprecedented step of calling on Congress to pass reforms. Lawmakers should listen to the secretary and pass the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act swiftly.
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