HomeWashington Post: Whistleblowers flood VA with lawsuits despite apology

Washington Post: Whistleblowers flood VA with lawsuits despite apology

Published On: July 25th, 2014Categories: In the News, News, Whistleblower Protection

By Jim McElhatton

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Saying sorry isn’t proving enough for the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs.

An apology from a senior VA official earlier this month failed to prevent a spate of employment-related federal lawsuits from former employees who claim they faced retaliation after lodging workplace complaints, a review of court records shows.

The complaints include the case of a former staff psychologist in South Dakota who says she was punished for calling attention to building problems that were making people physically ill.

In another case, a patient safety manager in Texas says he was suspended after raising concerns about a staffing shortage in his department, all while being the target of racial slurs.

It’s unclear whether the unfolding VA scandal will result in an uptick in lawsuits and the prospect of expensive legal judgments or settlements. But the half-dozen recent cases reviewed by The Washington Times almost certainly represent a tiny fraction of overall workplace complaints the agency is facing.

“Unless you do something real, it’s just window dressing,” said Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, when asked about the VA apology. “I haven’t seen any change in the culture at VA. It really has a reputation as one of the worst federal agencies for whistleblowers.”

Mr. Kohn is representing Dr. Ram Chaturvedi in a case before the Merit Systems Protection Board. The doctor, who worked at the VA medical center in Dallas, says he was fired after raising concerns about patient safety violations of hospital accreditation rules.

“It’s an ingrained culture,” Mr. Kohn said. “What they need to do if they were serious is to appoint a truly independent and responsible neutral mediator, someone who can come in and actually look these cases over and resolve them if they need to resolved. But they continue to fight them in court.”

Among other recent federal cases reviewed by The Times, Rebecca Watson-Miller, a former psychologist assigned to VA facilities in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday saying she was targeted after complaining that the building where she worked was making people sick.

The lawsuit said she and others in the building feared the structure was causing respiratory infections and other health problems. Ms. Watson-Miller said the VA’s subsequent investigation was inadequate, according to the lawsuit.

An attorney declined to comment, and the VA did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday.

In another case, John Bender, a patient safety manager for VA’s North Texas Healthcare System, said he was subjected to offensive racial slurs at work and that he was placed on leave after complaining that a staffing shortage could “impact patient safety,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed last week.

Both cases were filed weeks after a top VA official issued a blunt public apology to employees who endured retaliation over the years. James Tuchschmidt, acting principal deputy undersecretary, made the remarks during a congressional hearing in which several whistleblowers recounted their stories of reprisal.

“I apologize to everyone whose voice has been stifled,” Mr. Tuchschmidt said.

Appearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Mr. Tuchschmidt told lawmakers that the VA wouldn’t tolerate an environment where “intimidation or suppression” of reports occurs.

“Clearly, we are deeply concerned and distressed about the allegations that employees who sought to report deficiencies were either ignored, or worse, intimidated into silence,” he said.

Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, expressed little doubt that more whistleblower complaints would emerge as the VA continues to deal with a scandal involving manipulated patient wait times at multiple facilities across the U.S.

“VA has failed to engage their clinician workforce as partners, as evidenced by the numerous whistleblowers who have come forward to share their stories of retribution and reprisal and the many more who continue to call our offices yet, understandably, are reluctant to come forward publicly,” Mr. Miller said.

Eric K. Shinseki resigned as VA secretary May 30, a month after he became embroiled in the scandal over unacceptably long wait times for some veterans.

The fallout continues. Lydia Dennett, a spokeswoman for the Project On Government Oversight, said the watchdog group still receives confidential reports from VA employees about retaliation. She said some employees informed the agency’s inspector general but didn’t receive any feedback on their complaints.

She said she was unsure whether another level of federal review of whistleblower complaints was necessary but added that the VA needed restore the trust of its employees.

This week, the watchdog released a report saying it had received nearly 800 complaints from current or former VA employees and veterans, the most in its history on any topic.

A doctor in Pennsylvania told the group he was removed from his job and told to sit in an office with nothing to do after he complained about colleagues who weren’t showing up to work.

Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a speech this week that the VA would do a better job of listening to workers who file complaints about workplace and patient safety issues.

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