Tucked into the last-minute budget deal passed by Congress this week are new protections for whistleblowers in the Department of Veterans Affairs in response to a series of high-profile retaliation cases that lawmakers insist show a cultural problem in the bureaucracy.
The provisions -- based on legislation co-authored by Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. -- require a 12-day minimum suspension for the first time supervisors retaliate against a whistleblower and immediate dismissal if the same offense happens again.
It also includes in supervisors' performance ratings how they respond to employee complaints and concerns, and expands other existing whistleblower protections to VA doctors and nurses, a group previously left out of some of the federal regulations.
Kirk praised the move as a critical step forward in fixing the department's problems.
"This bill is a positive step in ending the VA's culture of corruption and making sure our veterans are never again mistreated or neglected," he said.
"Too often we have seen incidents of whistleblowers being intimidated or fired when they bring abuse and failure to light. These systemic problems need to be addressed so that whistleblowers are not afraid to come forward."
Earlier this month, House lawmakers grilled VA officials over their use of employee settlement policies after allegations surfaced the program is often used to dismiss problem staffers instead of punishing them and to get rid of whistleblowers rather than address their allegations.
Lawmakers have pointed to the case of a Puerto Rico VA hospital employee offered $300,000 to quit after she filed complaints about a supervisor’s criminal record.
Committee officials said nearly $5 million in employee settlements have been negotiated since July 2014, but VA officials insist the program is being used properly.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald over the last two years has repeatedly stated that supervisors found retaliating against whistleblowers will be punished, but leaders in both the House and Senate have said they routinely field complaints from employees who are punished for pointing out waste, fraud and abuse in their offices.
In recent months, Kirk has highlighted reports from several whistleblowers working at Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital in his state, including allegations of cockroaches in food there.
"We need to protect the protectors of our veterans," he said.
The budget bill, which extended federal spending at fiscal 2016 levels until Dec. 9 and set nearly $177 billion in VA funding for all of fiscal 2017, was signed into law by the president on Thursday.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at