MADISON, Wis. — U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is re-introducing legislation aimed at protecting federal whistleblowers from the kind of retaliation that, sources say, proved fatal at the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah.
Johnson, R-Wis., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, last week announced they are bringing back the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act — just in time for National Sunshine Week.
The bill bears the name of the 38-year-old clinical psychologist who fatally shot himself in July 2009 after being fired from the Tomah VA facility. Kirkpatrick had questioned the medical center’s overprescription practices of opioids and other patient care concerns.
“Individuals who expose wrongdoing at VA medical facilities should be thanked and listened to, not silenced and subject to mistreatment,” Johnson said in a press release. “I’m pleased to partner with Sen. Ernst to ensure future whistleblowers like Dr. Kirkpatrick receive the support they deserve.”
The bill strengthens penalties for those who retaliate against whistleblowers, adds protections for probationary period employees and ensures federal employees have a greater knowledge of whistleblower protections, according to the senators.
Johnson is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which in May published a comprehensive report titled, “The Systemic Failures and Preventable Tragedies at the Tomah VA Medication Center.” The 359-page report lays out a long list of misconduct, abuse and retaliation charges over several years, and nearly as many red flags that critics say, had they been heeded, could have saved lives.
As USA Today reported in April 2015, Kirkpatrick had complained about patients being too drugged to treat. Other whistleblowers reported being retaliated against for raising similar concerns.
At a committee hearing in September 2015, Kirkpatrick’s brother, Sean, testified about the retaliation his brother faced after bringing allegations of wrongdoing to the attention of Tomah VAMC administrators.
The senators say their bill implements a number of suggestions Sean Kirkpatrick made at the hearing to improve whistleblower protections throughout the VA.
“This commonsense legislation would help to safeguard whistleblowers who speak up about corruption and mistreatment in our VA system, and take additional steps to hold retaliators responsible,” said Ernst, a combat veteran. “Efforts to fix the VA must be protected, not punished, as we work to improve access to timely and quality care for our nation’s veterans.”
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act unanimously in May. However, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., effectively killed it as one of the Senate minority leader’s many parting shots against GOP legislation before retiring.
“What happened to Chris is outrageous,” Sean Kirpatrick told USA Today in April 2015. “My hope and family’s hope is that people will take action so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]
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