- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

FEDERAL WAY, Wash. (AP) - An administrator at a Veterans Affairs office in Federal Way should have faced discipline when leaders learned she’d been falsifying records about her meetings with patients.

Instead, she received positive performance reviews and kept her job, according to a federal VA whistleblower investigation sent to Congress and President Obama this week.

The investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel affirms a complaint brought by social worker Jonathan Wicks of University Place. He’s an Iraq veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and went to work for the VA in early 2013, hoping to make a difference in veterans’ lives.

Wicks quit working for the VA in July 2014 when he felt ostracized because of his attempts to draw attention to mismanagement at the Federal Way Vets Center.

“It’s been the worst year of my life,” he said Friday. “But this is a positive thing if we can bring things to light and hold people accountable.”

Wicks’ case was one of several highlighted by the Office of Special Counsel this week in a report that assessed the VA’s treatment of whistleblowers. It was ordered after employees at the VA hospital in Phoenix last year disclosed data revealing delays in patient care and preventable deaths of veterans.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote that the VA too often punished whistleblowers while rewarding administrators whose actions drew scrutiny from employees.

“The lack of accountability in these cases stands in stark contrast to disciplinary actions taken against VA whistleblowers. The VA has attempted to fire or suspend whistleblowers for minor indiscretions and, often, for activity directly related to the employee’s whistleblowing,” she wrote.

Among the other cases Lerner cited are a Kansas City employee who was fired after blowing the whistle on improper scheduling practices and a Delaware employee who received a 14-day suspension after raising concerns about opiate addiction.

Complaints about falsified records regarding delays at the Phoenix VA last year led to then-Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation. They also exposed a backlog caused by widespread improper scheduling practices across the nationwide system.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald has since pledged to do better in addressing whistleblower complaints.

In a written response to Lerner’s report, the VA said it’s working to create a “work environment in which all employees - from front-line staff through lower-level supervisors and top VA officials - feel safe sharing what they know, whether good news or bad, for the benefit of veterans, without fear of reprisal.”

The report cites Wicks as an example of a whistleblower who felt reprisal.

Wicks reported his concerns about the Federal Way Veterans Center to the Special Counsel. Later, the VA changed his security code, which barred him from going into his office after hours. He acknowledged that he was upset with a coworker at the time.

“People started to avoid me,” he said Friday.

Lerner’s report credits him with uncovering a manager who exaggerated the amount of time she spent with patients. Wicks also shined a light on one of the manager’s subordinates who failed to follow up on hundreds of patients’ requests for counseling services.

Wicks charges that both practices were attempts to cook the books so the Federal Way Vets Center appeared to exceed performance targets.

The manager later received a written reprimand. Her subordinate had a temporary contract that was not renewed.

Lerner wrote that the manager’s actions should have led to her dismissal.

The Special Counsel report noted that higher-ranking VA administrators knew about problems in the Federal Way office before Wicks filed his complaint.

In the summer of 2013, the office manager had been cited for low productivity. She had met with just 13 patients in a period when she should have seen 150.

Afterward, she began falsifying her performance records, according to the Special Counsel report. She counted phone contacts as face-to-face counseling sessions and exaggerated the amount of time she spent meeting in appointments with veterans.

The office also had an employee whose job centered on making new contacts with veterans. In the spring of 2014, that employee registered 100 new patients who requested follow-up calls from the VA. He did not make the calls.

Four months later, the Federal Way Vets Center abruptly closed the cases without contacting the veterans who had asked for help. No one called the veterans.

“I was so sick thinking of what was happening to these veterans,” Wicks said Friday.

The Federal Way Vets Center is one of eight offices in Washington that focus on counseling and connecting with hard-to-reach veterans who normally avoid the bureaucracy of the VA. It is overseen by a regional office in Denver, according to the Special Counsel.

Wicks, 37, joined the office in January 2013 after earning a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington Tacoma.

He was a star student in the program, and he received a warm response last year at a conference on PTSD that was held at UWT. He gave a frank talk about suicidal thoughts he coped with after the Iraq War.

His experience at the Vets Center took a toll on him, he said Friday, and he’s been receiving treatment this year at the VA’s American Lake hospital.

This week, Lerner’s report lifted his spirits.

“After a while you start to think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ” he said.

That’s no longer the case.

“I was doing the right thing,” he said.

___

Information from: The News Tribune, https://www.thenewstribune.com

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