The Department of Veterans Affairs paid out more than $100,000 in bonuses last year to top executives at facilities that ignored whistleblower complaints of poor patient care.
Whistleblowers have played key roles in uncovering systemic problems at VA hospitals across the country, revealing long wait times, cooked appointment books and bad treatment of veterans.
Although the VA later confirmed many of the accusations, officials often failed to take reports seriously and, in some cases, retaliated against the whistleblowers, employees and government investigators told Congress on Tuesday.
“A problem isn’t allowed to exist within the Phoenix VA care system unless senior administrators officially allow it to be recognized,” Dr. Katherine Mitchell, an internist who helped start the investigation, said in prepared remarks to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“No matter how critical the issue is to patient care or safety, senior officials will deliberately avoid the problem by covering up any evidence of deficiency,” she said.
VA employees said some who tried to raise warnings faced consequences, including being put on administrative leave or shifted to desk duties.
Dr. Jose Mathews, a former chief of psychiatry at the St. Louis VA facility, said he was reprimanded for pointing out to supervisors that psychiatrists at the hospital there worked only 3.5 hours a day.
“There is a sense of mission that’s lacking, and I’m really hoping that this committee, with its powers, will take aggressive action to make the retaliation stop,” Dr. Mathews told the panel Tuesday evening. “With the data being so cooked up and so unbelievable, it’s extremely important that, while we work on data integrity to make sure data reflects reality, it’s extremely important people are able to step forward and speak the truth.”
Dr. Christian Head, chief of staff at the Greater Los Angeles VA facility, said the problem lies with leadership and that most VA employees found the VA accusations as “gut wrenching” as he did.
“I couldn’t sleep and I believe there are a lot of people in the VA system who feel the same way,” he said. “But there is a cancer in leadership, a few people, that perpetuate this idea that we should be silent.”
The Office of Special Counsel, which handles complaints from whistleblowers over poor treatment, is investigating 67 cases at the VA, said Carolyn Lerner, who heads the office. She said the number increases daily and that 25 of those cases have been filed just in the past month.
“It is clear that the workplace culture in many VA facilities is hostile to whistleblowers and actively discourages them from coming forward with what is often critical information,” she said in her written testimony.
A top VA official said he and his colleagues try to take whistleblower complaints seriously and are concerned about reports of retaliation.
“We are deeply concerned and distressed about the allegations that employees who sought to report deficiencies were either ignored, or worse, intimidated into silence,” Dr. James Tuchschmidt, acting principal deputy undersecretary for health, said in prepared testimony. “Let me be clear: VA will not tolerate an environment where intimidation or suppression of reports occurs.”
But the $109,887 in bonuses awarded to senior executives at five VA facilities under investigation for not taking whistleblower complaints seriously suggest bad behavior is often rewarded.
Top-level employees at VA facilities in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Buffalo, New York; Little Rock, Arkabsas; Harlingen, Texas; and Jackson, Mississippi, received bonuses totaling $109,887 in fiscal 2013, according to data provided by the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, despite whistleblower reports including unsanitary equipment and improperly credentialed surgeons.
The fiscal 2013 bonuses were paid Feb. 28, according to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, called for the next VA secretary to cancel the bonuses in light of the department’s problems.
“The VA secretary has the authority to rescind these bonuses anytime within a year of when they were paid, and I am calling on him to take this action where he deems appropriate,” Mr. Miller said.
The VA awarded almost 284,000 bonuses in fiscal 2013, totaling close to $278 million. Lawmakers have complained before that those who cook books and neglect patients are rewarded rather than punished and have held hearings on unearned bonuses for senior VA executives.
Rep. Michael H. Michaud, Maine Democrat and the committee’s ranking member, said the VA should have a zero-tolerance policy and fire anyone who is found to have retaliated against whistleblowers.
“How do we fix this culture and encourage all VA employees to step forward to identify problems and work to address these problems?” Mr. Michaud said. “Talk is cheap. Real solutions are hard to find. It is clear to me that the VA as it’s structured today is fundamentally incapable of making real changes in the culture.”
But Mr. Miller said the VA had not been cooperative and evaded congressional demands for accountability.
“When pressed on this clear lack of consequences, department officials have pointed to nondisciplinary actions, such as employee transfers, resignations and retirements, or bureaucratic slaps on the wrist, such as temporary written warnings, in a disingenuous attempt to create the illusion of accountability,” Mr. Miller said.
The committee chairman said such actions were not remotely sufficient.
“Such semantic sleights of hand are insulting to the veterans seeking care at the department and their families as well as the taxpayers who fund VA’s operations,” he said.
Mr. Miller said Tuesday night that he is drafting legislation to better protect whistleblowers at the VA.