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In a rare act of bi-partisanship, a bill to protect Veterans Administration whistleblowers has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, both of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, introduced the Veterans First Act, a bill designed to add more protections for VA whistleblowers.
“The rights are a major breakthrough in the struggle for VA whistleblowers to gain credible protections when defending the integrity of the agency mission and disclosing quality of care concerns. Further, the Act would provide a system to hold employees accountable for their actions when they retaliate against those exposing waste, fraud, or abuse,” the Government Accountability Project, a leading whistleblower advocate group, said in a press release in support of the legislation.
“This bill will help change not only practices and rules but the culture of the VA … This measure assures that every veteran who works for the VA, every member of the VA staff … is treated fairly and that they can report issues of wrongdoing without any fear of retaliation or revenge,” Blumenthal said in the same press release.
The bill seeks to create an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, a new office within the VA independent of the Office of Inspector General, forcing a merit system, more training for supervisors on whistleblower rights, and development of criteria to promote whistleblower protections.
“In this bill we are addressing all of the things we have been hearing about from our veterans,” Isakson told the Military Times. “Accountability is addressed, delivered, and we’re going to have a new VA in America.”
The VA has received a lot of heat for its treatment of whistleblowers, allegations including retaliation, privacy violations and creation of hostile work environments.In December 2015, the Washington Post reported that those responsible for retaliating against whistleblowers at the Phoenix VAMC, where the wait list scandal started, were never punished,
In March 2016, the Office of Special Counsel concluded that the VA OIG’s office spent more time investigating the whistleblowers than they did the allegations made by the whistleblowers in two high profile cases — Shea Wilkes in Shreveport’s Overton-Brooks VAMC and Germaine Clarno of the Hines VAMC.
In September 2015, several VA whistleblowers who were also veterans testified that their medical records had been illegally accessed.
Though it receives bi-partisan support, the bill faces an uncertain future, according to the Military Times: “Despite bipartisan support in the Senate, the measure faces an uncertain future with the House and White House, which have already raised questions about how effective the new firing rules will be and the unclear cost of the omnibus.”