Last July, when Dr. Christian Head testified before Congress about improper record keeping at the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Health Care system, he also detailed what department whistleblowers typically face when they speak out: isolation, defamation, and aggressive attacks.
Since then, he said, VA managers in Los Angeles have reassigned many of his patients, blocked some of his operating room access, moved his office to a converted closet and stripped him of his chief of staff duties.
"When I complained, they said, 'If you don't like it, take it to Congress,' " the 20-year neck surgeon said.
He did. On Monday, Head was part of a list of whistleblowers before the House Veterans Affairs Committee testifying that despite public promises of protections for employees who speak out, intimidation and punishment are still common throughout the department.
Stories included at least 11 employees in Delaware's Wilmington VA Medical Center who have been sidelined for months after clashes with local management and an associate director at the Central Alabama VA Health Care system who was physically removed from a hospital after complaining about fraudulent patient records.
The hearing came just days after the one-year anniversary of the start of the patient wait times scandal that caused a national uproar and forced the resignation of several top department officials, including former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
His replacement, VA Secretary Bob McDonald, has repeatedly vowed to punish officials who retaliated against employees reporting wrongdoing.
But lawmakers questioned that promise, saying they still see too many problems for whistleblowers in the department.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.
Photo Credit: Chris Schneider/The Associated Press
"It is very simple. If you retaliate against or stifle employees who are trying to improve VA for our nation's veterans, you should not be working for VA."
Photo Credit: Staff
Meghan Flanz, director of VA's Office of Accountability Review, said the department is working closer with the special counsel to settle those cases and punish retaliatory supervisors, but noted that firing managers is a time-consuming federal process.
That excuse prompted more anger from lawmakers, who have accused the department repeatedly of working too slowly to remove problem employees.
Flanz said she believes whistleblowers in the department are coming forward in greater numbers because of their confidence in the changes made in recent months.
Head disagreed, calling his experience since publicly exposing problems more of the same from the department. He said the last nine months have been trying, but he doesn't regret speaking out.
"I will always take a stand against these problems," he said, "because I think veterans deserve better."