Whistleblowers testify that VA whitewashed healthcare scandal, retaliation persists

by Linda Lewis  Aug. 1, 2015

At a hearing of the Senate Appropriations committee Thursday, whistleblowers testified on Veterans Affair’s investigation of the concerns about healthcare deficiencies at Veterans Affairs hospitals–investigations they characterized as a collective whitewash.

Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who reported secret wait lists with names of as many as 40 patients who died while waiting for care, told Congress that the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to protect her confidentiality as a whistleblower, reassigned her to a different department and left her open to retaliation by fellow employees after she spoke out. She also said the department’s inspector general failed to follow up on her accusations of medical malpractice and wait lists. (Washington Times)

Dr. Lisa Nee, a former cardiologist at the Hines, Illinois, VA hospital, described unnecessary surgery and extended delays in reaching echocardiograms.

In one case, Nee said a patient with heart failure was admitted to Hines in 2013, and providers discovered an echocardiogram had been performed on the patient in 2006 but had never been read. It showed moderate leakage in a heart valve that could have been corrected by surgery. But by 2013, Nee said his undiagnosed condition had grown inoperable. (USA Today).

The whistleblowers also described management retaliations certain to ring familiar to numerous other federal workers who have blown the whistle over the past two decades. Nee quit her VA job after managers reportedly retaliated by forcing her to work “in an asbestos-laden office during abatement” and “repeatedly removed her computer from her office.”

“Retaliation is alive and well,” testified Mitchell.  “I have many friends within the Phoenix VA that are scared to speak up.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me) responded to Mitchell’s testimony, “I find it astonishing, Dr. Mitchell, that after you brought forth this information that you were not even interviewed, and I also find it incredible that a facility would be asked to essentially  investigate itself when there are physicians or other medical personnel there who are the subject of the concerns.”

Linda Halliday, who became the VA’s Deputy Inspector General on July 6, sought to blunt the criticisms, saying, “We make every effort to make sure an official separate from, and at a higher grade than the alleged wrongdoer, is responsible for conducting the review of the allegations.”

“All complaints are evaluated. Using our available but limited resources we must be highly selective in the cases we accept.” testified Halliday.

After Halliday testified that the IG’s office respected the wishes of  whistleblowers to be anonymous, Sen. Kirk noted that her predecessor had demanded the names of VA employees who had contacted the Project on Government Oversight with complaints. Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director, testified that POGO told VA they were happy to share information disclosed to them–but not the whistleblowers’ names.  The next day, Brian said, POGO received a subpoena from the VA demanding those names.

Asked by Kirk if she would be willing to withdraw that subpoena, Halliday responded evasively, “At this point I would hope that there is no information that would result in patient harm that we wouldn’t know about to go take a look at.”

*   *   *

Subcommittee chair Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) issued a press release noting that his office now has a whistleblower hotline for veterans and VA employees at (773) 431-4099. Alternatively, send an email to vets@kirk.senate.gove.

Employees of the VA and other federal agencies can call or write the Office of Special Counsel.

(800) 572-2249
(202) 254-3640
1730 M Street, N.W., Suite 218
Washington, D.C. 20036-4505

 

For more information, see:

U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations website, with written testimonies of the following witnesses who testified on July 30 before the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee; Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Chairman

  • Dr. Katherine Mitchell, MD (whistleblower)
  • Dr. Lisa Nee, MD (whistleblower)
  • Danielle Brian, Project on Government Oversight
  • Linda A. Halliday, Deputy IG, VA
  • Carolyn M. Lerner, US Office of Special Counsel

Sen. Mark Kirk’s July 30 press release on the outcome of the above hearing

Office of Special Counsel July 29 press release on the handling of VA whistleblower complaints

 

Links to media coverage of the hearing

Obama’s pet watchdog left veterans out in the cold

Local cardiologist testifies about Hines VA Hospital at Senate hearing (Chicago Tribune)

Veterans Affairs whistle-blowers blast new agency watchdog (USA Today)

 

Links to earlier coverage of the scandal

A fatal wait: Veterans languish and die on a VA hospital’s secret list

How the VA developed its culture of coverups (Washington Post)

Emails show White House “requested” IG to change VA scandal report (Hot Air)

VA whistleblower: Retaliation followed after telling White House about abuses (Hot Air)

Whistleblowers: Veterans cheated out of benefits (CBS News)

Arizona Central’s Timeline of VA Health-Care Scandal

(Multiple articles) CBS News’ VA Hospitals Scandal web page

(Multiple articles) ABC News’ Veterans Affairs (VA) Scandal News web page

 

Reports

VA OIG investigative Aug. 26, 2014, report. “Review of Alleged Patient Deaths, Patient Wait Times, and Scheduling Practices at the Phoenix VA Health Care System

 

 

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