A longtime whistleblower at a Maryland VA facility says that her superiors told her she was going to be fired just a day before she was set to testify to Congress.
Dr. Minu Aghevli, PhD, is the coordinator of the VA's opioid-addiction treatment program in Baltimore, which is part of the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System. She was set to testify about how the VA treats whistleblowers like her on Tuesday of this week. On Monday, she says she got a "notice of proposed removal."
"The notice of proposed removal was issued immediately after the Agency learned that Dr. Aghevli's disclosures would be the subject of a front-page story in USA Today and that she would be testifying before Congress," her legal team wrote in the letter to OSC, according to an ABC report. "The reasons set forth by the Agency for proposing Dr. Aghevli's removal are without merit and cannot be the actual reasons for proposing her removal."
The hearing she testified at on Tuesday was held by the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and titled: "Learning from Whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs."
Aghevli's prepared testimony explained how, back in 2013, she sounded the alarm about how management at the VA medical facility where she worked was telling her to cut down the size of her program's wait list in ways that she "felt were improper," like scheduling fake appointments at an imaginary clinic, she testified at Tuesday's hearing.
"After I started voicing my concerns about our improper wait list practices, the agency threatened to remove me as coordinator of the program and transfer me to a different area of the hospital," she explained to the subcommittee.
"Over the last five years, this pattern of retaliation and threats has continued," the whistleblower added. "It doesn't matter that my performance evaluations have been uniformly outstanding; I have experienced constant harassment, scrutiny and frivolous investigations."
Aghevli also said that she was threatened with a reprimand last year after voicing concerns about a patient's death and that earlier this year, she raised safety concerns, which she says were answered by the VA revoking her clinical privileges, which prevents her from seeing or talking to patients.
Aghevli also testified that the suspension of her clinical privileges did not count as a "personnel action" under the law. However, she says it was even worse than taking a disciplinary action.
"Even if my somehow termination is stopped, I will still have to put down that my privileges were suspended every time I renew license or if I ever apply for a job for the rest of my career," Aghevli explained. "So it's kind of like having an arrest record I can't ever expunge."
Ultimately, Aghevli said that this kind of treatment of VA whistleblowers has a "terrible effect" on the veterans in the department's care.
"I've taken care of some of my patients for almost 20 years; I see some of them every day when they come into the clinic," Aghevli concluded. "They are like my family. It has broken my heart to not see them during these past two months. Sometimes I'm one of the most stable people in their lives, so when I abruptly disappear, it affects them."
Now, she says, the department is trying to fire her.
"Yesterday, I was informed that they were starting the process to remove me," Aghevli told the committee while fighting back tears, noting that she informed her superiors of her invitation to testify two weeks ago. "This feels obviously retaliatory. But worse than that, I feel like I'm being used as a threat against other employees who might think about speaking up about patient care concerns, and I resent that. I do not want to be used as a pawn."
The full hearing can be found here:
2019-06-25 Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Hearing: Learning from Whistleblowers at VA www.youtube.com
In a comment to Blaze Media, a VA spokesperson said that Avgheli's proposed termination "centers on events that happened in April" which include "a number of serious clinical practice allegations against the employee" and "is in no way related to any whistleblower activity." The statement did not say what those allegations were.
The spokesperson also said "identifying as a whistleblower doesn't shield someone from accountability when they have failed to uphold VA's values and committed clear instances of misconduct."