For nearly three years, Veterans Affairs social worker Shea Wilkes has been trying to get the attention of someone who could fix the life-threatening handling of patients at the Shreveport VA Hospital.
He’ll finally get his chance on Tuesday. Wilkes, a 42-year-old Army reservist, will testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee along with fellow whistleblowers Brandon Coleman and Joseph Colon, and the brother of psychologist Chris Kirkpatrick.
The event promises high drama. Senators will likely grill the whistleblowers’ detractors – officials from the VA and the VA’s Inspector General. The senators will no doubt want to know how the VA allowed secret waiting lists designed to mask long wait times for patient care, along with other malfeasance and cover-ups while the staffers responsible remain employed.
The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) will sit at the same witness table and testify – just days after issuing a scathing letter to President Obama on the VA’s nationwide “pattern of deficit patient care” and “failure to take appropriate discipline.”
“The most troubling aspect of whistleblower retaliation within the VA is that, in the end, it’s the veterans who ultimately suffer when the courageous employees who expose wrongdoing are punished,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI, chairman of the committee. “I hope this hearing will highlight how the lack of a permanent watchdog allows whistleblower retaliation to spiral out of control.”
The VA’s Inspector General (IG) is supposed to investigate claims of wrongdoing at the VA as an alleged independent agency; the OSC actually is a separate agency, grants whistleblower status and reports to the president.
As for the whistleblowers, they have mixed feelings of relief and delight to be testifying on Capitol Hill after years of allegations that have gone nowhere.
“The Inspector General has proven to be useless. The more we can expose them the better,” charged Wilkes, who until recently, remarkably found himself under a criminal investigation by the IG for accessing evidence to prove his whistleblower claims.
“They have to get on board and stop covering up for the VA or bring in an agency that is truly independent,” Wilkes said. “That’s what it will take to clean up the VA because the VA has proven that it can’t be trusted.”
OSC investigations are not automatic. They happen when government employees – rather than the federal agency they work for – ask for whistleblower protection because they witnessed incidents that could be illegal or inhumane. Not all of the complaints result in a full-fledged investigation with an open case.
VA complaints have doubled in recent years. About 40 percent of the OSC’s workload of 5,237 cases last year pertained to the VA, comparted to 20 percent from several years ago, said OSC spokesperson Nick Schwellenbach.
Usually cases are resolved with little fanfare. However, last week the OSC issued a widely publicized report that backed up claims by Phoenix VA hospital’s Dr. Katherine Mitchell who spoke out last year about abuses. According to the blistering report, emergency room triage nurses were “grossly unqualified” and other employees were “complicit in significant patient neglect.”
Wilkes is still waiting for a conclusion to his case. In 2013 he told supervisors that wait times were excessive for mental health patients but his complaints were ignored. The following year he obtained copies of a secret wait list with 2,700 names, including 37 who died while awaiting appointments. When he gave the evidence to the Inspector General, investigators seemed uninterested in pursuing his claims – instead telling Wilkes that he was under a criminal investigation for accessing unauthorized data, Watchdog discovered.
It was then that the OSC granted Wilkes whistleblower status. Months later, the IG abruptly dropped its criminal probe without explanation. He remains at the VA, but in a demoted position with an office ostracized from other workers.
Colon was threatened with termination last year from the Puerto Rico VA when he revealed that the hospital director was arrested for drug possession and intoxication. Kirkpatrick committed suicide in 2009 after he was fired for reporting that VA doctors were overmedicating patients in Wisconsin.
And in Phoenix, Coleman was suspended in January from his job as a counselor when he reveled that suicidal veterans were being turned away without care. He remains out of work because he has refused the VA’s overtures to reinstate him. He says returning to his job would mean working alongside the very people he complained about, Coleman says.
The OSC says one of the major issues facing the VA is its refusal to terminate or reassign employees involved in egregious behavior.
“I’m asking for accountability in the VA and to protect the whistleblowers,” Coleman said. “I’m not going to stop until I get action. Even if we don’t get it this time, I’m going to keep going. I think it’s a privilege and not a right to work for the VA.”
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