The Veterans Affairs department has punished whistleblowers for years, The New York Times
reported, citing interviews with current and former staff members and internal documents.
The federal Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistleblower complaints, is examining 37 claims of retaliation by VA employees at facilities in 19 states, according to the newspaper.
The government watchdog has successfully called on the VA to drop the recent disciplinary action taken against three staff members who had spoken out about the systemic problems with the department.
Since the scandal erupted, hundreds of whistleblowers have come forward to report cases of extensive patient delays and fake scheduling to their union leaders, lawmakers, federal investigators, and a whistleblower advocacy group.
However, an investigation by the Times revealed that long before the current outrage over delayed treatment for veterans was exposed, staffers at VA hospitals were either "rebuffed, disciplined, or even fired for speaking up."
Six current and former staff members from facilities in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Alaska have claimed that they faced retaliation for reporting problems with the system, the Times reported.
The accusations by four doctors, a nurse, and an office manager appear to support other VA personnel who have complained about the system in court filings, government investigations, and congressional testimony.
"I understand that we’ve got a cultural issue there, and we’re going to deal with that cultural issue." said acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who replaced Eric Shinseki after he quit last month, according to the newspaper. Gibson added that punishing whistleblowers is "absolutely unacceptable."
The Times said that whistleblowers in the VA have faced the highest number of retaliations of any federal agency, citing Carolyn Lerner, who runs the Office of Special Counsel.
The VA's punishing of whistleblowers goes back to 1992, when a congressional report revealed that they had been harassed or fired for reporting problems.
In 1999, a House subcommittee hearing on "Whistleblowing and Retaliation in the Department of Veterans Affairs" found that the same problem existed.
The scandal was finally addressed when Dr. Sam Foote revealed that up 40 veterans had died in a Phoenix facility due to long patient delays while administrators had been "cooking the books."
Senior staff kept secret lists containing fake shorter waiting times for patients, as well as factual lists with the actual wait times showing long delays for veterans receiving care. Foote said that he decided to retire when his hospital chiefs tried to retaliate against him.
Since Foote went public, the Project on Government Oversight, an advocacy group for whistleblowers, said it has been flooded with complaints from current and former VA staffers.
The VA inspector general had subpoenaed the 175 whistleblower claims linked to the VA Phoenix hospital, but the group has been reluctant to hand them over due to fears about confidentiality, according to the Times.
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