Stars and Stripes: Stars and Stripes: VA is ‘free speech Death Valley’ for whistleblowers, advocate tells House lawmakers

This article features Government Accountability Project’s Legal Director, Tom, Devine, and was originally published here.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is a “free speech Death Valley” for whistleblowers who raise concerns or file complaints about the quality of VA patient care, Thomas Devine, director of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, told House lawmakers Thursday.

Devine said the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection has made recent improvements, though the agency needs structural changes and aggressive oversight to ensure better practices.

“OAWP now is monitoring and assessing agency corrective action on whistleblower referrals,” he said, adding the office shares findings within the VA but “the public does not get to see the results.”

Devine was among several whistleblower advocates who urged a subpanel of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to make structural reforms to the VA’s whistleblower protection office, which was established six years ago.

“No internal whistleblower protection office can adequately protect whistleblowers without real independence from the agency it investigates,” said Joe Spielberger, policy counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog organization.

The purpose of the hearing Thursday was to receive a status report on the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which was created in 2017 after an investigation by the VA inspector general found systemwide failures providing timely treatment and care at VA medical centers.

The review found significant problems at a VA hospital in Phoenix, where employees were accused of falsifying appointment records and patients with serious illnesses experienced long delays for care.

“OAWP quickly failed at its mission with egregious abuses by leadership in the former administration, which were investigated by the inspector general. Current leadership has had an uphill battle rebuilding the office into an office that could possibly meet its mission,” said Rep. Frank Mrvan, D-Ind.

Bruce Gipe, acting assistant secretary at OAWP, offered a counter view. He acknowledged a “trust gap” persists between the office and the “whistleblower community” over the agency’s independence and ability to perform its mission effectively. But he said the office has made meaningful changes after a period of “crisis.”

Gipe said reforms at the office include decreasing the average number of days for conducting investigations – from 251 in 2021 to 82 days in 2023. It also established a whistleblower navigator who helps employees understand their choices when raising concerns and reporting alleged wrongdoing and abuses. OAWP is producing a series of reports and recommendations for veterans who have experienced sexual trauma during military service with the goal of improving responses, resources and care.

He said OAWP is striving to be proactive by examining trends in the nature and type of complaints and fostering a “safe environment” for potential whistleblowers. The agency also tracks VA settlement agreements to understand issues that need to be addressed systemwide.

Gipe said the office fielded more than 2,700 “submissions” in fiscal 2023 over management of benefits and delivery of patient care at VA health facilities.

He provided the following breakdown of how complaints were processed and handled:

• 663 whistleblower allegations were referred to investigators.

• 174 disclosures were substantiated by VA staff.

• 86% of substantiated allegations involved violations of law, rules or regulations.

But Spielberger said OAWP does not operate as Congress intended because of its lack of independence and “inability to enforce disciplinary recommendations.”

“Removing the bias from this equation would help prevent retaliation, protect whistleblowers and hold more senior officials accountable for misconduct,” he said.

Spielberger acknowledged improvements have been made at OAWP based on recommendations from a 2019 report by the VA’s inspector general. They include hiring more staff, holding educational exercises and reducing a backlog of complaints.

But he said “structural issues” regarding the independence of the office persist and continue to undermine its mission.

Samantha Feinstein, staff attorney with the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy organization, said a change of culture is needed at the VA.

She urged lawmakers to revisit the provisions in the Strengthening Whistleblower Protections at the Department of Veterans Affairs Act, which was adopted in the House in 2022 but stalled in the Senate.

“This solid, good government legislation is needed more than ever,” she said. “One reason is that the VA remains the government’s most hostile agency for whistleblowers who challenge patient care breakdowns, despite the life-or-death consequences of its mission.”