Saturday, September 20, 2014
Loading...





VA acting chief: retaliation will not be tolerated

VA acting chief says reprisals against employees who complain about care will not be tolerated

Posted on June 6, 2014 at 7:27 p.m.

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Investigators said they are examining allegations that supervisors in the veterans’ health system retaliated against 37 employees who complained about practices such as falsified records used to cover up months-long delays in scheduling appointments. The acting VA chief said such reprisals would not be tolerated.

“I think that is wrong. It is absolutely unacceptable,” Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson said Friday.

“There have been questions raised about intimidation or even retaliation. There is a law that forbids that, and we’ll follow the law,” Gibson said at a news conference Friday following a visit to a San Antonio VA facility.

His comments came after the Office of Special Counsel said it was looking into possible retaliation against 37 employees of the VA who filed so-called “whistleblower” complaints. The office is an independent watchdog separate from the VA which looks into whistleblower complaints from across the federal government.

But one of the 37 who complained of reprisals, Brian Turner, said he is not reassured by Gibson’s vow to discipline those who retaliated. Turner, who works at North Central Federal Clinic in San Antonio, said he was intimidated by his supervisors for complaining that scheduling clerks in Austin, San Antonio and Waco were regularly told to enter false information to make it appear that wait times for appointments were far shorter than they really were.

“I don’t care about what (Gibson) said. I want to see action,” Turner told the Associated Press in an interview Friday.

The Office of Special Counsel said it had blocked disciplinary actions against three VA employees who had complained, including one who was suspended for seven days after complaining to the VA’s inspector general about improper scheduling.

The agency also blocked a 30-day suspension without pay for another VA employee who reported inappropriate use of patient restraints and blocked demotion of a third employee who reported mishandling of patient care funds.

The complaints about retaliation against whistleblowers came from 28 VA facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico, the special counsel’s office said Friday. About half the 37 complaints have come in the last two months, or after allegations about treatment delays of up to three months for veterans and secret waiting lists first surfaced.

The disclosures have set off a furor in Washington, forcing the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week, and prompting Congress to consider legislation to make it easier for treatment of veterans outside the government-funded VA.

Gibson, who has stepped in as acting secretary, apologized on Friday for the VA’s failures and said he is doing everything he can to fix the system.

“We have lost an awful lot of trust, and we’ve got work to do to earn it back,” Gibson said. “With veterans, we’ll do that one veteran at a time by reaching out to veterans that have been waiting too long (for care) and saying, ‘You’ve been waiting, I want to get you in the clinic. When can you come in?‘”

Some veterans whose names were kept off the official electronic appointment list have died, and Gibson said on Thursday that he would ask the inspector general to look into 18 more cases of deaths to see if there is any indication they were related to long wait times. The 18 are in addition to 17 deaths reported last month.

The 18 veterans who died were among 1,700 veterans identified in a report last week by the VA’s inspector general as being “at risk of being lost or forgotten.” The investigation also found broad and deep-seated problems with delays in patient care and manipulation of waiting lists throughout the VA health care system, which provides medical care to about 9 million veterans and family members.

Gibson said in San Antonio that he has been in daily contact with Richard Griffin, the VA’s acting inspector general, and he expressed confidence that Griffin and his investigators will be able to ferret out the truth, regardless of any attempts to squelch potential whistleblowers.

VA whistleblower Turner, a veteran himself who has worked for the VA since 2011 as a medical support assistant, said until the VA’s management is restructured and supervisors who were responsible for causing or ignoring the problems are removed, nothing will change and employees who may wish to come forward to report other problems will be discouraged from doing so.

“I will not stop. I will not waver in my actions until they make drastic improvements,” he said.

Daly reported from Washington.

Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at https://twitter.com/juanlozano70




 Firefighter Cameron Andersen, of the US Forest Service, pours water on burning embers while clearing hot spots of the King fire in the El Dorado National Forest near Georgetown, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.   More than 3,500 firefighters from various agencies are battling the blaze that started Saturday and has burned more than 70,000 acres.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Updated 1 hour ago
 A video display at a convenience store shows a wanted poster of Eric Frein, a 31-year-old from Canadensis, Pa., Friday, Sept. 19, 2014, in Philadelphia. Frein is charged with killing Pennsylvania State Trooper Cpl. Bryon Dickson and wounding Trooper Alex Douglass in a late-night ambush Sept. 12 outside the Blooming Grove state police barracks. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Updated at 1:04 a.m.
 FILE - In this March 12, 2009 file photo, Peanut Corporation of America's president Stewart Parnell arrives a federal court in Lynchburg, Va. A federal jury in Albany, Ga., convicted Parnell and two others Friday, Sept. 19, 2014, in connection with a salmonella outbreak that prompted one of the largest U.S. food recalls ever, sickened hundreds across the country and was linked to several deaths. Parnell was convicted on numerous counts including conspiracy, wire fraud and obstruction of justice related to shipping tainted peanut butter to customers and faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella. (AP Photo/Don Petersen, File)

Updated at 12:20 a.m.
Back to top ^