WASHINGTON, D.C. — A top official at the Veterans Affairs Department says he is sorry that VA employees have suffered retaliation after making complaints about poor patient care, long wait times and other problems.
James Tuchschmidt, the No. 2 official at the Veterans Health Administration, the VA’s health care arm, apologized on behalf of the department at a congressional hearing Tuesday night.
“I apologize to everyone whose voice has been stifled,” Tuchschmidt said after listening to four VA employees testify for nearly three hours about VA actions to limit criticism and strike back against whistleblowers. “That’s not what I stand for. I’m very disillusioned and sickened by all of this.”
A federal investigative agency said Tuesday it was examining 67 claims of retaliation by VA supervisors against employees who filed whistleblower complaints — including 25 complaints filed since June 1, after a growing health care scandal involving long patient waits and falsified records at VA hospitals and clinics became public.
The independent Office of Special Counsel said 30 of the complaints about retaliation have passed the initial review stage and were being investigated further for corrective action and possible discipline against VA supervisors and other executives. The complaints were filed in 28 states at 45 separate facilities, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said.
Instead of using information provided by whistleblowers as an early warning system, the VA often “has ignored or attempted to minimize problems, allowing serious issues to fester and grow,” Lerner told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing. Worse, officials have retaliated against whistleblowers instead of investigating their complaints, she said.
Lerner said her office has been able to block disciplinary actions against several VA employees who reported wrongdoing, including one who reported a possible crime at a VA facility in New York.
The counsel’s office also reversed a suspension for a VA employee in Hawaii who reported seeing an elderly patient being improperly restrained in a wheelchair. The whistleblower was granted full back pay and an unspecified monetary award, and the official who retaliated against the worker was suspended, Lerner said.