Monday, September 21, 2015

VA whistleblowers get their day on Capitol Hill

By Tori Richards

For nearly three years, Veterans Affairs social worker Shea Wilkes has been trying to get the attention of someone who could fix the life-threatening handling of patients at the Shreveport VA Hospital.

He’ll finally get his chance on Tuesday. Wilkes, a 42-year-old Army reservist, will testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee along with fellow whistleblowers Brandon Coleman and Joseph Colon, and the father of psychologist Chris Kirkpatrick.

The event promises high drama. Senators will likely grill the whistleblowers’ detractors – officials from the VA and the VA’s Inspector General. The senators will no doubt want to know how the VA allowed secret waiting lists designed to mask long wait times for patient care, along with other malfeasance and cover-ups while the staffers responsible remain employed.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) will sit at the same witness table and testify – just days after issuing a scathing letter to President Obama on the VA’s nationwide “pattern of deficit patient care” and “failure to take appropriate discipline.”

The VA’s Inspector General (IG) is supposed to investigate claims of wrongdoing at the VA as an alleged independent agency; the OSC actually is a separate agency, grants whistleblower status and reports to the president.

As for the whistleblowers, they have mixed feelings of relief and delight to be testifying on Capitol Hill after years of allegations that have gone nowhere.

“The Inspector General has proven to be useless. The more we can expose them the better,” charged Wilkes, who until recently, remarkably found himself under a criminal investigation by the IG for accessing evidence to prove his whistleblower claims.

“They have to get on board and stop covering up for the VA or bring in an agency that is truly independent,” Wilkes said. “That’s what it will take to clean up the VA because the VA has proven that it can’t be trusted.”

OSC investigations are not automatic. They happen when government employees – rather than the federal agency they work for – ask for whistleblower protection because they witnessed incidents that could be illegal or inhumane. Not all of the complaints result in a full-fledged investigation with an open case.

VA complaints have doubled in recent years. About 40 percent of the OSC’s workload of 5,237 cases last year pertained to the VA, comparted to 20 percent from several years ago, said OSC spokesperson Nick Schwellenbach.

Usually cases are resolved with little fanfare. However, last week the OSC issued a widely publicized report that backed up claims by Phoenix VA hospital’s Dr. Katherine Mitchell who spoke out last year about abuses. According to the blistering report, emergency room triage nurses were “grossly unqualified” and other employees were “complicit in significant patient neglect.”

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