WASHINGTON (PAI)--Problems at the Veterans Affairs Department, which have led to lawmakers probing the VA for lying about how it treats ailing vets and how long they actually wait for appointments and treatment, include past department retaliation against whistleblowers, the VA workers' union says.
And that means there must be strong protections for workers who speak out about abuses on the job, adds American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox, himself a retired VA nurse from North Carolina.
The uproar over the VA arose when other retired and former doctors and workers at the department revealed that injured and ailing troops waited weeks for appointments, but VA managers falsified the records to show they were treated quickly. Some of the wounded waited so long that they died before VA treated them.
The uproar has led veterans groups to call for housecleaning at the department, including firing Obama administration Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Cox and local AFGE leaders who represent VA workers don't go that far but they do say the managers aided and abetted their lying by retaliating against rank-and-file VA workers who spoke the truth.
""These headlines aren't revealing anything that the VA didn't already know," Cox said in mid-May. "Our members have paid a heavy price for voicing concerns, submitting letters, raising issues in labor management meetings, and testifying before Congress on wait time issues and veterans' access to care.
"When they have sounded the alarm our members faced retaliation and intimidation. No one should have to choose between keeping their job and speaking out about threats to patient care. It is time for the VA to take swift action to end this culture of fear and cover-ups."
Retaliatory incidents Cox and his colleagues cited included:
AFGE Pittsburgh Local President Kathi Dahl was asked by the House Veterans Affairs Oversight Subcommittee in February 2013 to testify about an outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease at the VA hospital there. Five veterans died and dozens more had been infected. The hospital had high Legionnaires' readings for at least a year before they were disclosed to Dahl. A VA manager told her to "call in sick" so she would not have to testify. She refused.
Dr. Michelle Washington, a union activist with AFGE VA Local 342, testified in a 2011 Senate committee hearing about inadequate staffing, lack of patient access to specialized care and prolonged waits for appointments. She also testified appointment data were manipulated. After her testimony, VA managers yanked some of her duties as a psychologist and gave her a negative evaluation.
The agency investigated Dr. Maryann Hooker, another AFGE activist, after she testified about the harm from proposed budget cuts and deskilling of the workforce in 2011. The VA's Office of Inspector General eventually had to intervene to clear her of unspecified charges, the union said.
Richard Griffin, the agency's acting Inspector General, testified on May 15 that VA's problems are system-wide because the agency has gotten away from making health care for veterans its top priority. He did not touch on the retaliation against the whistleblowers.
"The unexpected deaths the Office of Inspector General continues to report could be avoided if VA would focus first on its core mission to deliver quality health care," Griffin said.
"Its efforts would also be aided by discussion of the best organizational structure to consistently provide quality care. The network system of organization and the accompanying motto, 'all health care is local,' served the VA well over the last several decades but does not standardize the organization of medical centers. It is difficult to implement national directives when there are no standard position descriptions or areas of responsibility across the system.
"No two (VA) hospitals are alike. We believe it is time to review the organizational structure and business rules of VHA to determine if there are changes that would make the delivery of care the priority mission," Griffin concluded.
"We hope the agency will take a serious look at how facility directors and managers are carrying out the mission of the VA," added AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee. "As the agency carries out its probe, we caution it not to target front line workers carrying out their duties as assigned, but the managers trying to change the rules and cheat veterans out of the care they deserve. VA should not be investigating itself under these circumstances."
"The employees caring for our nation's heroes work hard each day to carry out the mission of the agency, to provide our vets with world-class care," said Cox. "They shouldn't feel afraid to speak up against managers who are more concerned with securing bonuses than providing their patients with timely access to care for critical medical conditions.
Photo: Certified restorative nursing assistants trained in lift technology help a Korean War Veteran into his bed with a ceiling lift. (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Brian Ferguson)