VA whistleblowers struggle to overcome “culture of non-responsiveness”
A report from an independent federal agency on Monday sharply criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs for failing to adequately respond to information from whistleblowers to “address systemic concerns that impact patient care” at VA facilities.
The report from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel blasted the VA for downplaying the severity of various identified problems at some of its facilities. It also outlined a number of examples of what it called “part of a troubling pattern of deficient patient care at VA facilities nationwide.”
Two veterans in a Veterans Affairs psychiatric facility languished for years without proper treatment, according to a scathing letter and report sent Monday to the White House by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, or OSC.
In one case, a veteran with a service-connected psychiatric condition was in the facility for eight years before he received a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation; in another case, a veteran only had one psychiatric note in his medical chart in seven years as an inpatient at the Brockton, Massachusetts, facility.
Examples such as those are the core of the report released Monday by the OSC, an independent government agency that protects whistleblowers.
The OSC letter/report references issues at a number of VA facilities, including several previously reported problems at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi that were noted in a September 17, 2013 letter. The OSC concluded in that earlier letter that “[T]he Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has consistently failed to take responsibility for identified problems. Even in cases of substantiated misconduct, including acknowledged violations of state and federal law, the VA routinely suggests that the problems do not affect patient care.”
The report also goes on to note that OSC currently has over 50 pending cases of whistleblower disclosures from VA employees that “allege threats to patient health or safety,” 29 of which have been referred to the VA for investigation.
In outlining the ongoing deficiencies in the VA’s responses to disclosures from whistleblowers, the OSC expressed some especially harsh criticism of the agency. From the letter sent Monday by U.S. special counsel Carolyn Lerner:
I remain concerned about the Department’s willingness to acknowledge and address the impact these problems may have on the health and safety of veterans. The VA, and particularly the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector (OMI), has consistently used a “harmless error” defense, where the Department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected. This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans. As a result, veterans’ health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk.
Monday’s report from the OSC comes just over two weeks after the federal agency said it was investigating allegations of retaliation against dozens of whistleblowers in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Read the full letter/report from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel here.
A video report from CNN can be viewed below.
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