- - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Veterans Affairs officials illegally accessed whistleblower medical records to engage in a smear campaign aimed at covering up fatally lax medical care, according to testimony Tuesday at a U.S. Senate committee hearing.

In a rare show of solidarity, Republicans and Democrats showed anger and distress during the testimony of witnesses Carolyn Clancy, the VA’s chief medical officer, and Deputy Inspector General Linda Halliday. That testimony followed whistleblowers who testified that VA officials tried to bully them into silence after reporting wrongdoing. Their detractors continue to work in the VA.

Both Ms. Clancy and Ms. Halliday said retaliation against whistleblowers is unacceptable.

“I was upset coming in here. And I’m becoming more upset,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Mr. Johnson became emotional while reading from an April inspector general’s report that was released upon subpoena. It detailed large amounts of marijuana and a scale reportedly found at the home of Chris Kirkpatrick, a VA psychiatrist and whistleblower.

Kirkpatrick had reported that VA doctors were overmedicating his patients, including one who had threatened Kirkpatrick’s life. In 2009, after his complaint, the VA fired Kirkpatrick, and the psychiatrist killed himself.

“I want this to sink in. This came from [personnel in the office of inspector general], who say reprisal is unacceptable,” Mr. Johnson said. “That sounds like a reprisal to me — to a dead person. What will the VA do to make good on this? To make up for this reprisal, this reprehensible reprisal?”

At that point, Mr. Johnson shouted: “Who did? Who did this? I want to know every individual involved in writing this report!”

The inspector general’s office is supposed to investigate complaints of fraud and abuse. But testimony showed it was complicit in covering up VA mistakes instead of ferreting out wrongdoing.

Whistleblower Shea Wilkes testified that he was placed under a criminal investigation by the inspector general’s office for accessing a secret wait list at the Shreveport VA Hospital in order to provide evidence of misconduct. He talked with 50 other whistleblowers across the nation and found that “100 percent of them have had their medical records accessed” to fabricate reasons for dismissal.

His only savior was the office of special counsel, which reports directly to the president. That agency managed to get the criminal action against him dropped and helped the other whistleblowers who testified. The office grants whistleblower status and investigates reports of retaliation.

Carolyn Lerner, the special counsel, testified that employees who have retaliated against whistleblowers face little or no discipline from the VA. About 40 percent of her office’s workload is dedicated to VA complaints, and the number is growing.

“There may be a reluctance to go after the people who are more powerful,” she said, suggesting that investigations often settle on relatively low-ranking employees rather than their supervisors.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said she has introduced legislation that would require the termination of any employee who retaliated against a whistleblower. She asked Ms. Clancy how many people had been fired pertaining to this issue.

Ms. Clancy said she didn’t know but had concerns about the bill.

“I worry about more fear on leaders,” she said. “They feel like if someone raises their hand and something goes wrong, they are worried they are losing their job.”

Ms. McCaskill responded, “That is the problem: They are worried about hiding the problem more than they are the problem.”

The committee intends to continue monitoring the whistleblower issue and will put pressure on President Obama to appoint a new director to the VA inspector general’s office. The position has been vacant for 631 days.

A recent report revealed that 847,822 patients have been waiting for appointments — including one-third who have died.

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