Whistleblowers within the Department of Veterans Affairs testified Tuesday that they still face hostile opposition from leadership despite public promises their concerns would be thoroughly investigated, and that a new office to oversee that work has proven largely ineffective.
Department officials criticized the testimony as a one-sided attack on VA by House Democrats, since they were not invited to participate. But members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said the testimony raised serious concerns about systemic retaliation against employees who raise concerns about problems in the workplace.
“We can’t allow employees who come forward with important information to be intimidated,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. and chairman of the committee’s oversight panel.
Millions of dollars set aside for suicide prevention outreach in fiscal 2019 went unused, and public awareness campaigns disappeared from national media.
Tuesday’s testimony included emotional testimony from several VA employees who spoke of a culture of “not airing our dirty laundry” and covering up problems within the department health care system.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell, one of the physicians who brought to light wait-time problems at the Phoenix VA Health Care System in 2014, said she has been touted by the department as a “whistleblower success story” but still faces aggression and retaliation for her role in highlighting those problems. That includes marginalizing her job opportunities, and local leadership undermining her standing with colleagues.
“The retribution is vicious and disruptive to everyone,” she said. “Anyone with a reasonable mind would not speak up in this … malignant leadership culture.”
Dr. Minu Aghevli, the former coordinator for opioid treatment programs at the VA Maryland Health Care System, said her clinical privileges were revoked in April after she reported new concerns about several veterans care issues. For the last five years she has raised alarms about improper wait list practices in local hospitals, including falsifying data about veterans appointments.
Just a day before her testimony, VA officials informed her they would work to fire her from her post.
“I feel like I’m being used as a threat against employees who may speak up about patient care concerns,” she said. “I don’t want to be a pawn.”
VA officials under President Donald Trump have repeatedly promised to end all retaliation against whistleblowers, and set up with congressional backing a new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection to better address those employees’ concerns and prevent punishment for their actions.
But Jackie Garrick, founder of Whistleblowers of America, said the office “has caused more of them more harm because it is plagued with deficiencies related to timeliness, unfair processes and inadequate staffing.” Leaders at the Project on Government Oversight said they worry the office has become a central repository to track potentially problematic employees, instead of an investigative agency.
VA staffers were not invited to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, which Republican members of the panel lamented as providing an incomplete picture of the situation. Pappas said he plans to hold a hearing with those officials soon.
But VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, in a letter to the committee Tuesday morning, said the decision to exclude the department from this hearing amounted to politicizing the event. Several of the cases featured at the hearing predate both his term in office and Trump’s, and recent improvements were not covered in the testimony.
In response, the acting VA secretary accused the inspector general of overstepping his authority and hurting the department's image.
“When the committee holds a hearing to air criticisms of the department while simultaneously preventing the department from participating to offer context and defend itself, the committee’s efforts risk appearing more like a political press conference than a hearing aimed at a balanced look at serious issues,” he wrote.
“If this is how the committee intends to conduct oversight of the department in the future, an exclusionary approach could chip away at the committee’s oft-stated goal of bipartisanship.”
Committee spokesman Miguel Salazar said the department’s complaints are unfounded, and officials there have been hostile to any oversight work in recent months.
“VA has refused to appear before our committee when called and answer poignant questions about how its practices are impacting veterans,” he said. “It has continued to slow walk key document requests and provide inadequate witnesses for hearings.
“Their concerns are misplaced and consistent with a department hell bent on picking and choosing how they will comply with this committee’s mandate.”
Meanwhile, whistleblowers who testified at the hearing said they don’t see the problems as a political issue, noting serious issues with retaliation stretching back into the previous presidential administration.
“Reporting is asking to have your career killed and life threatened,” Garrick said. “That’s unfair.”