The Veterans Affairs Department continues to retaliate against whistle-blowers despite repeated pledges to stop, a national group said Tuesday.
VA whistle-blowers from across the country told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the department has failed to hold supervisors accountable more than a year after a scandal that broke over chronic delays for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records covering up the waits.
Shea Wilkes, a clinical social worker at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, La., said agency leaders are "more interested in perpetuating their own careers than caring for our veterans."
Wilkes, who helped organize a group known as VA Truth Tellers, said "years of cronyism and lack of accountability have allowed at least two generations of poor, incompetent leaders to plant themselves within the system," isolating the VA "from the real world of efficient and effective medical treatment" for veterans.
Both Wilkes and Brandon Coleman Sr., an addiction therapist at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System, told senators that VA managers accessed their private information in retaliation for them speaking out about problems they've seen.
"Until we are able to protect whistle-blowers and potential whistle-blowers, the true depth of the corruption within the VA will not be known," Wilkes said, calling the VA's Office of Inspector General a "joke." The office has not had a permanent leader since December 2013.
Republicans and Democrats on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee called the testimony appalling and urged President Barack Obama to appoint a permanent inspector general at the minimum.
Sen. Ron Johnson, the panel's chairman, said the appointment would be a "basic first step" to help ensure the office is transparent and independent. Johnson (R-Wis.) said the VA "has a cultural problem" of retaliating against whistle-blowers that must be fixed.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) called it “absurd” that the VA Office of Inspector General has gone 631 days without a permanent leader. She called on the president to submit a nomination if he “really cares about getting this right.”
Dr. Carolyn Clancy, chief medical officer for the Veterans Health Administration, said the department's responsibility to protect whistle-blowers "is an integral part of our obligation to provide safe, high-quality healthcare. Retaliation against whistle-blowers who have demonstrated the moral courage to share their concerns is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated."
But Johnson said the VA was not living up to those ideals. Whistle-blower retaliation and abuse of authority by management at the Tomah, Wis., veterans hospital "created a culture of fear among the staff that compromised veteran care," he said. If hospital leaders and the inspector general's office had listened to whistle-blowers, Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski "may have not been prescribed the lethal mixture of 13 different medications that killed him" last year, Johnson said.
Simcakoski, of Stevens Point, Wis., died in August 2014 in the hospital's short-stay mental health unit from "mixed drug toxicity" that included taking 13 prescribed medications in a 24-hour period, the OIG found.
The investigation found that psychiatrists did not discuss with Simcakoski or his family the hazards of a synthetic opiate he was prescribed, acted too slowly when he was found unresponsive and did not have anti-overdose medicine on hand. One physician who attended him was fired.
Sean Kirkpatrick, whose brother Christopher was a psychologist and whistle-blower at the Tomah hospital, said his brother frequently told his family he was concerned about the overmedication of many of his veteran patients. Christopher Kirkpatrick killed himself in 2009. He had been fired after filing a complaint about narcotics abuse at the Tomah site.
An inspector general's report in June 2015 noted the presence of marijuana in Kirkpatrick's system and made other allegations about drug use. Sean Kirkpatrick called the report "beyond offensive and disturbing for our family," adding: "VA acts as if it's above the law, and it's wrong."
Johnson called the report on Chris Kirkpatrick deeply offensive and an indication that the OIG takes the agency's side in reviewing whistle-blower complaints.
Linda Halliday, the acting inspector general, said she did not write the Kirkpatrick report and did not know who did. Halliday became acting inspector general in July after Richard Griffin.
VA whistle-blower complaints are handled by the Office of Special Counsel, which was created, in part, to protect federal employees from reprisal for bringing complaints and concerns to light.
Carolyn Lerner, who heads the OSC, told the panel that the office's 140 employees are “inundated and overwhelmed” by exponential growth in VA cases which now account for 35% to 40% of the agency's caseload. She said that, previously, VA employees did not come forward out of fear of retaliation and because they felt that there would be no action taken on their complaint.
The agency's is investigating more than 4,000 complaints with more than 1,400 coming from VA employees she said. She said that, in the past year, 30 “corrective actions” have taken place on behalf of VA whistle-blowers.
“Results matter,” Lerner said. “Whistle-blowers know they can make a difference if they come to us.”
Clancy agreed, but acknowledged that the “VA is still working toward the full culture change we must achieve to ensure that all employees feel safe disclosing problems.”
Andis Robeznieks contributed to this report.