Bill Forces VA to Address Reports of Patient Abuse, Punish Those Who Retaliate Against Whistleblowers; Bill Protects VA Employees Who Protect Veterans
U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilCon/VA), has joined a bipartisan group of Senators, led by U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), in introducing the VA Patient Protection Act to force the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to address reports of abuse of veteran patients and to punish VA managers who ignore, intimidate and retaliate against whistleblowers.
“More must be done to change the status quo. We must work to build a VA that embraces, rather than retaliates against, whistleblowers who want to improve the system,” Senator Baldwin said. “We need to ensure that whistleblowers are empowered and this bipartisan reform legislation will hold the VA managers accountable for unacceptable retaliation and intimidation. Most importantly, it will improve the VA so veterans can get the care and services they need and deserve.”
In order to address the challenges faced by VA employees who stand up for veterans, and to punish the managers who retaliate against whistleblowers, the VA Patient Protection Act:
- Punishes retaliation. After the first offense of retaliation, a supervisor will receive a minimum 12-day suspension. On the second offense, they will be fired.
- Holds supervisors accountable. Supervisors’ performance ratings will be tied to how they respond to and deal with whistleblower reports and complaints. Supervisors found to retaliate against whistleblowers would not be eligible to receive bonuses for the 1 year period beginning on the date when the determination was made and for the supervisor to must repay bonuses already paid under certain circumstances
- Protects whistleblowers. Includes a provision Senator Baldwin championed in the MilCon/VA Appropriations Act of 2016, which will expand the Whistleblower Protection Act to prevent retaliation against VA doctors and nurses through performance reports. All VA employees will receive training about their rights as whistleblowers.
- Ensures complaints are handled properly. Employees who report misconduct can go to the next level supervisor if their immediate supervisor fails to properly handle their complaint. Establishing a formal complaint process ensures there is a paper trail to hold the VA accountable. Creates a Central Whistleblower Office that will be responsible for investigating all whistleblower complaints.
Reports of systemic misconduct and retaliation against whistleblowers are common across the nation, including:
- Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who first broke the VA wait list scandal, testified before the Senate MilCon/VA Appropriations Subcommittee about how she disclosed improper staffing in the emergency department and secret waitlists at the Phoenix VA. Management retaliated against Dr. Mitchell by removing her as the emergency department director.
- A doctor at Hines VA fraudulently inflated his productivity by entering service codes for work he did not perform – an allegation substantiated by the VA’s Office of Medical Inspection – but is still employed at Hines and has not been disciplined.
- After a VA employee in Louisiana discovered secret wait lists and filed complaints with the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG), the OIG failed to investigate the wait lists, but sent criminal investigators to investigate the whistleblower by looking into how he obtained the wait lists, confiscating computer equipment and asking him to submit to a lie detector test.
- Instead of investigating reports of a Puerto Rico VA hospital director’s misconduct, the VA sought to remove the employee who reported the misconduct. When the privacy officer concluded the whistleblower had not made an unauthorized disclosure, the VA sought to remove her as well.
- A VA employee in Wisconsin who reported improper disclosures of veterans’ health information was fired for sending an email – to report the misconduct – that contained personal information about a veteran.
- A nurse at a VA in Delaware who disclosed improper treatment of opiate addiction faced retaliation in the form of a 14-day suspension for minor allegations of misconduct.
- A VA employee in Wisconsin filed for whistleblower protection after being asked to falsify attendance records. Two weeks later, he resigned citing harassment and further disclosed problems with opioid over-prescription.
Joining Senators Baldwin and Kirk in introducing the legislation were U.S. Senators Blumenthal, Grassley, Gillibrand, Johnson, and Rubio.