At least 37 Veterans Affairs whistleblowers have filed complaints accusing supervisors of seeking retaliation. (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)
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At least 37 Veterans Affairs whistleblowers have filed complaints accusing supervisors of seeking retaliation for their reports of improper scheduling practices and other threats to patient care, the Office of Special Counsel announced Thursday.
Already, the independent investigative office has blocked disciplinary actions against three VA employees who disclosed problems in the department, saying the moves appear unfair and meant to discourage others from coming forward with embarrassing agency information.
“Receiving candid information about harmful practices from employees will be critical to the VA’s efforts to identify problems and find solutions,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement. “However, employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation.”
In addition, OSC is separately reviewing 49 employee reports related to scheduling problems and other patient safety issues at VA facilities.
Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last month promised that department whistleblowers would not be punished for highlighting needed changes at regional offices, citing federal protections for their actions.
But the special counsel report raises questions about whether local officials are following the same approach.
In one case, investigators said, a VA employee who spoke to the inspector general’s office about improper scheduling and record keeping received a seven-day suspension and a lowered performance evaluation from supervisors.
In another, a VA worker who reported overuse of patient restraints in violation of department health rules was suspended for 30 days without pay.
Both of those disciplinary actions were put on hold last month after the special counsel office intervened. Some of the cases under review by the office date back to 2013, but involve the same wait time and patient care issues for which VA officials recently have come under heavy fire.
Lerner praised VA leaders for providing temporary relief to the three employees highlighted by her office so far, but also noted the need to ensure that unfair retaliation practices do not continue.
The complaints under investigation cover VA facilities in 19 states.
Federal law prohibits supervisors from punishing employees as reprisal for whistleblowing, unless the information made public is classified or protected by law.
Last month, Shinseki was forced to resign following weeks of reports of lengthy wait times and falsified record keeping at VA health facilities across the country. Those reports began with allegations from a whistleblower in Phoenix, who said the improper scheduling may have contributed to the deaths of at least 40 veterans.
The VA inspector general has confirmed the care delay problems as a “systemic” issue but has not tied any of the Phoenix problems to patient deaths.