Whistleblowers from Department of Veteran’s Affairs hospitals offered dramatic testimony Tuesday about how they had been punished after raising quality-of-care issues. They also say the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection offers little protection from retribution.

The oversight subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs committee heard from both whistleblowers and advocates on what was described as a “culture problem” within the VA.

Minu Aghevli, who runs the opioid treatment program for the VA’s Maryland Health Care System, raised concerns about the handling of waiting list statistics about five years ago. Since then, Aghevli told the committee, she has been the subject of “constant harassment, scrutinizing and frivolous investigations.”

The retaliation and threats have continued, said Aghevli, who noted that she learned the day before the hearing that she was being “terminated” from her job.

 

Katherine Mitchell, MD, won a “public servant of the year” award from the VA after she disclosed understaffing and inadequate triage training at the Phoenix VA medical center’s emergency room. That did not protect her from retaliation, which she said has been  “extreme and ongoing.”

Still, Mitchell said she had no choice: There is “no other way to stop patients dying…Until leadership improves, employees will act as a safety-net.”

The witnesses testified that the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection established by the Trump administration works against whistleblowers rather than working to protect them.  (In May, general counsel and acting head of the VA James Byrne praised the law at his confirmation hearing.)

Radiology technician Jeff Dettbarn reported that patients were showing up at the Iowa City VA for CT scans appointments, but they found the sessions had been cancelled. It was later revealed that the appointments had been cancelled as part of a national effort to remove outdated orders, but the patients had not been notified. Like the others, Dettbarn said he was removed from patient care duties after raising concerns.

“So much time and money was wasted on the rebuttal to my disclosure,” Dettbarn said. “Instead of listening and trying to fix it, we got excuses as to why it wasn’t happening.”

Rebecca Jones of the Project on Government Oversight said the impetus behind the VA’s whistleblower program was positive, but some worry that it is not “functional due to lack of independence.”

“VA’s retaliatory culture permeates the higher levels of the agency” Jones said.

This story was reported by National Whistleblower Center interns Kelly Mwaamba and Shoshana Levy, and written by Tinker Ready.

 More on the hearing: