The Veterans Affairs Department's whistleblower protection program, initiated by presidential executive order early in President Donald Trump's tenure, has turned out to be a total bust.
You'll recall that in 2014, whistleblowers brought the VA's appointment wait-time scandal to light and suffered retaliation at VA executives' hands for their efforts. Since the current administration took office, whistleblowers have brought more than 500 cases before the newly created Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which is now codified in law.
Yet this year, the OAWP has brought just a single action seeking to redress issues raised by whistleblowers. The VA healthcare system employs more than 350,000 people at 170 hospitals and 2,000-plus other sites to provide healthcare to 9 million American veterans.
A recent report by the VA's Office of Inspector General charged VA officials at the OAWP with retaliating against whistleblowers, especially during the tenure of Peter O'Rourke, its first chief. He once ran a conservative political action committee. The OIG also charged O'Rourke with using the whistleblower office to end investigations into political allies and failing to provide Congress with information about his office's operations.
The OAWP is "flounder(ing) in its mission to protect whistleblowers," the report said. Its leadership has "created an office culture that was sometimes alienating to the very individuals it was meant to protect."
Things don't appear to have improved much under the president's second appointee, Tamara Bonzanto, a veteran with a doctorate in nursing. The former Republican staffer on Capitol Hill took over the OAWP in January.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell, one of the physicians who brought the wait-time scandal to light, told a congressional hearing in June that she still faces "vicious and disruptive" retribution from local VA officials. Dr. Minu Aghevli, former coordinator of opioid treatment programs at the Maryland VA, testified that her clinical privileges were revoked in April after reporting concerns about the quality of care.
In testimony before the House Veterans; Affairs subcommittee on oversight in late October, Bonzanto admitted "most of the concerns" raised in the OIG report were valid. She recently hired a deputy director for investigations from the Pentagon with experience in handling whistleblower complaints. She's promising to increase the number of investigators in the office and provide them with better training.
The VA's healthcare system faces huge challenges in the years ahead. Though the total number of veterans is shrinking, younger vets from our incessant Middle Eastern wars are more dependent on the VA than prior generations. VA use is rising, even with the new rules allowing veterans to receive VA-financed treatment from outside caregivers.
That's one reason why the agency has about 40,000 job vacancies, which are increasingly difficult to fill given the VA's low pay scales compared with private facilities. Allowing a culture of forced silence to fester at the agency will not help.
If there is one issue that brings Americans together, it is our willingness to do whatever necessary to take good care of our veterans. Yet no healthcare system as vast and complicated as the VA can deliver first-rate service without an open culture that encourages internal communication and dissent.
"We need to see a more effective OAWP with a laser-like focus on its statutory mission of receiving, reviewing and investigating executive misconduct, retaliation and poor performance as well as any sort of whistleblower retaliation by senior leaders and managers," said subcommittee ranking member Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.), a Vietnam War veteran with 40 years in the military.
When he signed the executive order, President Trump had this to say about whistleblowers at the VA: "We will make sure that they're protected." He was right then and it's right now.