An official at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Monday that Department of Veterans Affairs officials are known to be retaliating against VA whistleblowers by illegally going through their medical records, in an apparent attempt to harass and discredit these whistleblowers.
This surprising testimony from Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner was delivered at a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing, which was called to discuss the problems whistleblowers face when they try to expose the ongoing failure of the VA to provide medical care to veterans.
In Lerner's prepared testimony, she explained that many VA officials who try to reveal these problems are veterans themselves who are also seeking care at the VA. She said in some cases, VA officials try to retaliate by examining the medical records of these officials, and said this still happens — she called it an "ongoing concern."
"In several cases, the medical records of whistleblowers have been accessed and information in those records has apparently been used to attempt to discredit the whistleblowers," she said.
"We will aggressively pursue relief for whistleblowers in these and other cases where the facts and circumstances support corrective action," she said.
One example of a veteran who believes his medical records were inappropriately accessed is Brandon Coleman, a Marine Corps veteran who sustained injuries to his right foot while he served. Coleman works at the VA system in Phoenix, and told TheBlaze he became a whistleblower after it became clear that someone illegally went into his medical records.
He said after he started publicizing the failures of his own office to properly treat veterans with suicidal tendencies, his own mental health was questioned by his superiors. As of this year, the VA has threatened to reduce his disability rating.
"I feel strongly that this proposal to reduce my benefits is nothing more than an additional retaliation against me because I came forward as a whistleblower," he wrote in a March letter he gave to TheBlaze.
Coleman also added that his most recent attempts to ask who else might have gone though his medical records have been met with silence from the VA. Coleman has asked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to look into his case.
The problem of VA officials illegally going into the medical files of their employees is one that has been noted before, but is also one that the VA was supposed to have been on the road to fixing by now. In 2010, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that a VA official was convinced that her superiors illegally went through her medical records, which led to comments at work about her psychological care.
That report found more than 14,000 privacy violations at the Pittsburgh center.
The Monday hearing indicated that the VA's retaliation against whistleblowers continues, even though these stories have been around for years.
"I reiterate today ... that the department has had and continues to have problems ensuring that whistleblower disclosures receive prompt and effective attention, and that whistleblowers themselves are protected from retaliation," Meghan Flanz, director of the VA's Office of Accountability Review, told the subcommittee Monday.
Lerner of the OSC said complaints of whistleblower retaliation are on the rise. She said her office hears complaints across the federal government, but said 40 percent of them now come from the VA.
"[T]he number of new whistleblower cases from VA employees remains overwhelming," she said. "These cases include disclosures to OSC of waste, fraud, abuse, and threats to the health and safety of veterans, and also claims of retaliation for reporting such concerns."
Both Flanz and Lerner told the committee that it will take a while to change the "culture" of the VA. But lawmakers have routinely dismissed that answer, and have called on VA Secretary Bob McDonald to start holding officials accountable for failing to provide health care service to veterans, or for attempts to retaliate against whistleblowers.
So far, however, McDonald has done little to forcibly remove these officials — just a handful have been fired, and some have been allowed to retire with full benefits.