The woman who exposed the Veterans Affairs waiting list scandal in Colorado was suspended from the department last year after she sought to shine a light on the matter – then was asked to return on the condition of no more whistleblowing, she said.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 15, 2014, after testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
“Why are they throwing me under the bus when I'm trying to say what the problem is?” Lisa Lee, who worked at the VA clinic in Fort Collins, Colorado, told the Coloradan newspaper.
Lee said she was put on two weeks of unpaid leave for not obeying an order for “cooking the books” on scheduling medical appointments to give the appearance that appointments were made closer to the time veterans requested.
After she went to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel with information, she said, the VA offered her a deal to remove the suspension from her record and pay her for the two weeks – as long as she stopped whistleblower activities. It wasn't a tough call to say no.
“Look what I'd be going back to: a snake pit,” she told the newspaper.
The VA's goal is to see veterans within 14 days of desired appointment dates. That goal is used as a performance measure for individual VA medical facilities and affects administrator bonuses.
The matter of skewed wait times for veterans first emerged in Colorado based on Lee's internal complaints, but there are indications that it's a larger problem nationally. Because of the long VA wait lists, some reports show that up to 40 veterans might have died waiting for care. The VA Office of Inspector General is investigating.
Lee, a Navy reservist now on active duty in Hawaii, said that she and another VA scheduler were transferred from Fort Collins in March 2013 for refusing to hide wait times. She was transferred to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and received a pay cut.
“They had to punish us, they had to make us an example to the other (schedulers),” Lee said
Lee filed an internal grievance about the transfer, but it was denied, so she filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. Her complaint led to a probe by the Office of Medical Inspector that began in November.
Fort Collins had been meeting appointments in the desired 14-day window around 60 to 70 percent of the time. After Lee and the other scheduler were transferred, Fort Collins books showed they reached the appointments more than 90 percent of the time, according to the Office of Medical Inspector.