Officials and medical professionals at the Department of Veterans Affairs testified Tuesday night that VA leadership has spent years harassing and intimidating anyone in the department who tried to raise awareness about fraud and substandard medical care.
Four whistleblowers told their stories to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, in one of a series of hearings aimed at exposing and fixing the broken VA.
Long wait times for veterans seeking medical care erupted into a scandal this year, which led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, calls from both parties to fire officials who covered it up, the termination of bonuses for senior officials, and reforming the entire department.
Christian Head, MD, associate director at the Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care System, said he testified against two VA medical professionals in a case involving timecard fraud. He was then harassed by one of the officials who was allowed to stay on in a supervisory role.
“There was an end of the year party,” he said, noting that the official showed a slide to hundreds of people depicting him as someone who would rat out other VA officials.
“In front of close to 300 individuals, I was labeled a rat. I was labeled the person who ratted out this person.”
Kathrine Mitchell, MD, medical director at the Iraq and Afghanistan post-deployment center in Phoenix, said she has reported medical care inadequacies for years. She said that in 2013, she submitted a confidential report to the VA’s Office of Inspector General about problems — 10 days later, she was placed on administrative leave.
“I was subsequently investigated for misconduct because I provided limited amounts of patient information through the confidential OIG channel in order to support my allegations of the suicide trends and the facility’s inappropriate response to them,” she said.
She said she was eventually told she “violated a specific patient policy, but to this day my human resources department refuses to tell me the name of the policy I violated.”
Jose Mathews, MD, former chief of psychiatry at the St. Louis VA Health Care System, said that he spent considerable time trying to measure how effectively the VA was providing care to veterans. He said he determined at one point that VA psychiatrists were spending just 3.5 hours a day with patients.
He also tried to collect data on patient satisfaction and other metrics, and then disclosed this information to VA officials. He said the VA tried to cover up his findings.
“I did not go along with that, so very shortly I was put on detail. I was told that there would be an administrative investigation,” he said.
Scott Davis, program specialist at the VA National Health Eligibility Center, said his confidential whistleblower complaint was leaked to his manager, after which his employment records were illegally altered.
“I was placed on involuntary administrative leave, curiously, at the same time the OIG investigation was taking place in Atlanta,” he said.
Republicans in particular have called for legislation allowing any VA official providing poor care to veterans to be fired immediately, an idea that many Democrats have rejected. But Dr. Mathews said he agreed that immediate firings are needed.
Davis had another solution to the problem: “make bad managers pay their own legal bills.” Davis said that today, VA managers have no fear of harassing people because they know the taxpayer will pick up the legal tab.