Daphne Ivery, a VA employee in Atlanta, added a bold new piece of jewelry to her work outfits last week.
Each day, she donned a necklace featuring a gold pendant in the shape of a large whistle. It was meant as a warning to VA management and an encouraging signal to fellow employees: There’s a new day for whistleblowers at the VA.
Ivery is one of the whistleblowers who’ve been emboldened to report mismanagement and retaliation at the VA since an employee in Atlanta, Scott Davis, testified before Congress last week.
“It’s like an alcoholic or a drug addict, the first step to recovery is admitting there’s a problem,” said Ivery, the union president at the national Health Eligibility Center in Dekalb County, who Davis mentioned by name in his testimony. “Not letting it hide in the shadows. The first step to improvement is accountability.”
Similar stories are playing out across the VA. Whistleblower complaints are flooding into the federal agency that investigates them and each day employees seem more willing to come forward. Davis said between 10 and 20 other whistleblowers have contacted him since a story about his experiences first appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution June 29.
Davis, a program specialist at the Health Eligibility Center (HEC), has embraced his role and become a leader in what appears to be a surge of whistleblowers trying to reform the agency charged with serving the health needs of 8.9 million veterans.
In Tuesday’s televised hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Davis joined three other VA whistleblowers who shared their attempts to spotlight poor patient care or mismanagement within the sprawling VA bureaucracy. He seemed to impress lawmakers with his confident testimony, prompting multiple questions and praise for his courage, in a hearing that became a bipartisan repudiation of VA’s leadership.
Indeed, members of Congress seemed to acknowledge that whistleblowers have succeeded where Congress and the VA itself have failed: to bring national attention to major gaps in the care and service that the VA provides veterans.
Whistleblowers have told how VA schedulers manipulated appointment lists to mask months-long wait times for veterans to be treated. They have exposed egregious failings in the mental health services offered to veterans returning from war with post traumatic stress disorders.
In Atlanta, Davis revealed that more than 10,000 applications from veterans for health care benefits may have been improperly purged. On Tuesday, he said the office faced a backlog of 600,000 applications — representing an entire year of pending applications.
Davis, a Morehouse graduate with a background in communications, said he’s advised some whistleblowers who have contacted him how to contact their members of Congress or get their complaints before congressional investigators. He also plans to start a blog later this month that will help whistleblowers share their stories and provide advice about the process — and risks — of speaking out about problems in the federal government.
“We’re all sitting on an island thinking it’s just us,” he said. “Once we see what’s going on, it’s a community effect and we all have power. The strength is truly in the numbers.”
From nurse to the laundry room
Daron and Eileen Owens, employees at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, are also grateful to Davis.
The couple emailed Davis two weeks ago after seeing his story on the news. Like Davis, they believed the VA was retaliating against them for trying to expose mismanagement.
The couple told Davis to “stay strong.”
They shared their complaints with Davis, who passed them along to the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee. Davis went a step further and mentioned the couple by name in his sworn testimony that was televised on C-SPAN2 and over the Internet. He told the 25-member committee that the Owens have experienced retaliation for speaking out about medical errors, patient neglect and misconduct by senior leaders of the VA police department in Atlanta.
Daron Owens said he is thankful Davis took that step.
“We’ve always spoken out,” said Owens. “We just haven’t had a chance to get a bigger voice.”
Owens, a police officer with the Atlanta VA, and his wife, a nurse, are both veterans. Their complaints outline retaliation, harassment and a hostile work environment since alerting leaders about what they witnessed in their respective areas.
After years of strong performance reviews, Daron Owens said he started getting written up this year after reporting management problems at the VA police department. No one in the VA seemed to want to listen and his complaints were sent back to supervisors in the department, he said.
“This is not something you wake up and say, ‘Hey, I want to be a whistleblower and I’m going to have everybody attacking me,’” Owens said.
Eileen Owens said in one of her written complaints that VA management in Atlanta retaliated against her after she claimed “abusive scheduling tactics” involving veterans. She said she also received retaliation for reporting “known medication errors, and patient neglect.”
Outlining her grievances in an email to Atlanta VA Medical Center Director Leslie Wiggins and others, Eileen Owens said the retaliation against her included a proposed suspension and frequent job reassignments, including one to the laundry room.
Wiggins has declined repeated interview requests in recent weeks as the national VA scandal has raised questions about facilities across the country, including Atlanta where some new patients wait months for appointments. In a written statement, a VA spokesman did not directly answer questions about the Owens experiences or their claims about the medical center.
“The Atlanta VA Medical Center is absolutely committed to creating an environment in which employees feel free to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal,” said spokesman Greg Kendall. “Protecting employees from reprisal is a statutory obligation and a priority for the VA.”
Workplace culture ‘hostile’
In fact, government officials investigating whistleblower complaints at the VA say the agency has a long history of ignoring whistleblowers and failing to enforce federal whistleblower protections mandated by law.
In her testimony to the House committee last week, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel reported that serious complaints about patient abuse from VA whistleblowers are almost always discounted, and that those investigating breaches of care routinely explain them away as “harmless error” by caregivers.
“Rather than using the valuable information provided by whistleblowers,” Lerner said, “the VA often ignores or minimizes problems. This approach allows serious issues to fester and grow.”
Whistleblowers themselves also fare poorly at the VA, Lerner said.
“The workplace culture in many VA facilities is hostile to whistleblowers and actively discourages them from coming forward,” she said.
The Office of Special Counsel is charged with receiving whistleblower complaints from 2.1 million federal employees — yet half the office’s staff of 120 is now detailed to investigating complaints from the VA alone, an agency which employs about 300,000 people.
The office has 67 active investigations into allegations of retaliation in 28 states, covering 45 separate facilities, Lerner said. The office has received 25 new allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers just since June 1.
“The number of cases increases daily,” she said.
On a more positive note, Lerner said she sensed a new commitment from senior VA leaders to change the culture at the VA and make employees feel more emboldened to step forward.
But representative after representative at last week’s whistleblower hearing expressed disbelief that change was possible.
“We have lost trust in the VA,” said Rep. David Roe, R-Tenn., a physician. “It’s almost impossible to make a politician speechless, but the VA has done that.”
“Quite frankly, I’m speechless,” replied Dr. James Tuchschmidt, the VA’s acting principal deputy under secretary for health, the most senior VA official at the hearing. “I’m appalled.”
Visibly shaken, Tuchschmidt set aside his prepared remarks at Tuesday’s hearing and said he wished to speak honestly.
“The stories I heard tonight clearly depict in my mind a broken system,” he said. “I apologize to everyone of our employees.”
Later, Rep. Timothy Walz, D-Minn., told Tuchschmidt, “I don’t believe with one fiber of my being that you are going to get this right, and that floors me.”
Walz said the question on his mind, and on the mind of many Americans, was: “Are we trying to fix a broken system that is beyond repair?”
AJC investigative reporter Brad Schrade travelled to Washington last week to cover VA whistleblowers testifing before Congress, and returned to Atlanta with more allegations of mismanagement at VA facilities in Atlanta. Count on the AJC to be bring you the most in-depth reporting on this important national story.