Several months after emotional testimony from whistleblowers who say they still face retribution and harassment at work, key congressional leaders said this week they worry not enough has changed at the Veterans Affairs office charged with protecting those individuals.
But VA officials are dismissing those concerns as off-base, saying they response they have received from most of the veterans community thus far has been positive and the office’s work still progressing on schedule.
The issue has been a point of contention in recent months between Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the executive branch. It also comes as the White House spars with the Democratic House leadership over an impeachment investigation sparked by a whistleblower who President Donald Trump has labeled a possible traitor to America.
Lawmakers called the charges worrisome, but VA leaders say the complaints are ignoring recent improvements at the department.
Over the summer, the veterans committee held a pair of hearings on the issue of whistleblower protection in VA which included reports from several department employees who claimed that retaliation and intimidation in response to their allegations.
Jeffery Dettbarn, a radiologic technologist at the Iowa VA Medical Center, testified that after he made complaints of improper medical examination cancellations, he was sidelined by managers and saw his pay docked. Multiple complaints to the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection produced no resolution.
Similarly, Dr. Minu Aghevli, a program coordinator at the VA Maryland Health Care System, said her clinical privileges were revoked after she raised concerns about administrators gaming patient wait-list information.
This week, committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif, and chair of the committee’s oversight panel Rep. Chris Pappas, N.H., wrote to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie complaining that the two-year-old OAWP is still “showing itself to be ineffective in fulfilling its primary duties.”
This week, committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif, and chair of the committee’s oversight panel Rep. Chris Pappas, N.H., wrote to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie complaining that the two-year-old Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection “is showing itself to be ineffective in fulfilling its primary duties.”
The pair noted that the office has not offered any recommendations for disciplinary actions since the start of the year, and has not completed promised new training for staffers on whistleblower rights and protections. They also raised concerns about vacancies in the office and asserted that the agency “is simply not performing its required duties.”
VA Press Secretary Christina Mandreucci said that several of those criticisms are off-base. In recent months, the office has been realigned to include 10 new management positions several of which are currently unfilled. Department officials are working to hire appropriate staff for the new posts.
New training for employees is scheduled to be in place by the end of the year, in keeping with timelines previously given to Congress, Mandreucci said. Other assessments of improvements are underway.
“OAWP has maintained a dialogue with the committee as (leadership) continues to reform OAWP and its operations,” she said in a statement.
In response, the acting VA secretary accused the inspector general of overstepping his authority and hurting the department's image.
During testimony before the committee this summer, Under Assistant Secretary Tammy Bonzanto (who oversees the whistleblower office) said staff are still developing a host of data analysis tools to better track complaints and supervisor responses, in an effort to prevent retaliation from occurring.
But the lawmakers who penned this week’s letter said that work isn’t happening quickly enough. “Whistleblowers should have the confidence that VA will investigate disclosures and that they will receive protection against retaliation.”
The issue is one of several sparring sessions between the department and committee in recent months, including implementation of new community care rules and communication between the branches of government. Democratic lawmakers have accused the administration of being intentionally obstructive, while VA officials have accused lawmakers of injecting politics into policy discussions.