MELINDA HENNEBERGER: The VA's culture of retaliation, harassment and humiliation

The Washington PostJuly 13, 2014 

You know those four Department of Veterans Affairs whistleblowers who testified that they'd been harassed, humiliated, reassigned, investigated and painted as unstable? They don't even have stories that are out of the ordinary, according to Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.

On the contrary, Miller called the four seated before him at a hearing Tuesday night that went on past midnight "a representative sample of the hundreds of VA whistleblowers who've contacted our committee" in recent months to report retaliation against agency employees who exposed long wait times, falsified records and other problems so serious that veterans may have died as a result.

As a nurse, an internist and finally co-director of the emergency room, Katherine Mitchell has worked for 16 years at the Phoenix VA hospital where dozens of patients did die waiting for care, although officials have said it's unclear whether the delays caused the deaths. Mitchell was suspended and demoted after reporting that the ER was so dangerously understaffed that heart attacks, strokes and internal bleeding were being overlooked. It would be safer to close the place, she said; she was right, unfortunately. But if you're guessing that exposing the agency's record-keeping scandal won her the gratitude of her bosses, glad there weren't more deaths on their watch, think again. In fact, those who busted her are still in place.

Jose Matthews was chief of psychiatry at a VA hospital in St. Louis before he reported problems with both record-keeping and care, and he was forced out of that job, too -- not fired, mind you, but not able to do his work, either.

"Anyone involved in patient care enjoys almost lifetime tenure" at VA, he told the panel. The single best question of the night came from Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who asked Matthews if making it easier to fire retaliators wouldn't also make it easier to fire whistleblowers.

Matthews didn't exactly quake at the prospect of being terminated instead of being kept around and tortured: "They already professionally assassinated me," he said. And like the other whistleblowers who testified, he seemed most upset about how all the infighting had hurt his patients.

He said he knew one veteran who had committed suicide while waiting for care. Another man, whom he had called after running across the man's unfinished application, told Matthews he'd been in such bad health that he took the day off work and made the 90-minute drive to the hospital -- desperate to be seen. Instead, he spent hours filling out paperwork, only to hear that staffers would be in touch the following week -- which never happened.

"And this is a veteran who served our country and sacrificed a lot," Matthews said. As all of them have.

Scott Davis, a program specialist at the Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, reported a backlog of 600,000 benefit enrollment applications and evidence that the records of more than 10,000 veterans may have been deleted. In January 2013, he first sent up a flare over 40,000 unprocessed applications, most of them from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Davis testified that as a result of his whistleblowing, his employment records had been changed and he was put on involuntary administrative leave. Asked how long he'd been with VA, he said: "Three very long years. My father went to Vietnam, and I thought this was a way I could serve." He now is on medical leave.

As Davis sees it, "I was told to call the common line, the information I gave them was leaked, and they're not even interested enough in their own reputation to say, 'We didn't do that.' "

The hearing was refreshingly free of political posturing -- yes, America, there is an issue so serious that this is possible.

Christian Head, a head and neck surgeon and quality-assurance official for VA's Los Angeles health system, testified that a supervisor had paid him back for cooperating with an investigation of her by identifying him as a "rat" on a slide shown at the holiday staff party. It shows him as a younger man smilingly giving the finger. That supervisor is still in her job, Head said, even though the inspector general had recommended that she be removed.

Asked whether anything had changed, in terms of awareness, since the scandals became news, Head said yes: "They're very much aware I was coming here tonight," he said of his supervisors.

James Tuchschmidt, a top official at the Veterans Health Administration, profusely apologized to the whistleblowers: "I'm past being upset; I'm very disillusioned and sickened by all of this," he said at the hearing.

Yet the retaliation culture is still being tolerated. And why are those who cared about veterans enough to sacrifice their careers still being punished, while those whose coverups had such tragic consequences remain in place?

The Sun Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service