Oversight officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to properly investigate medical misconduct allegations at multiple VA hospitals and issued reports that attempted to discredit and attack whistleblowers, according to a review by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
In 2014, the Office of Special Counsel asked the VA inspector general’s office to look into claims of "secret waiting lists" at two veterans hospitals after receiving whistleblower complaints. Employees at the facilities claimed veterans would often be forced to wait months or longer for appointments, but this information was kept outside of the VA’s official electronic records system so that administrators could dodge federal requirements and take home cash bonuses.
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The VA inspector general’s office conducted two investigations, one at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Louisiana and another at the Hines VA Hospital in Illinois. The office reported that it was not able to substantiate the allegations made by the whistleblower at Overton Brooks, and was only able to substantiate limited parts of the allegations at Hines.
But the Office of Special Counsel said Thursday that it found significant flaws in the inspector general’s reports after conducting a review.
"The OIG investigations that the VA submitted in response to both referrals are incomplete. They do not respond to the issues that the whistleblowers raised," wrote Carolyn Lerner, the head of the Office of Special Counsel, in a letter to President Obama last Thursday.
According to Lerner, the VA inspector general’s office found evidence supporting the allegations that hospital employees were keeping separate lists of patients outside the VA’s official electronic system. But she said the office decided to focus its investigation on whether these outside lists were considered "secret," under a very narrow definition of the term. Because employees at the VA hospitals knew about the lists, the inspector general’s office determined they were not "secret."
The reports "do not met the statutory requirements and the findings do not appear to be reasonable," said Lerner in the letter to Obama.
In addition, the Office of Special Counsel found evidence that the inspector general’s office had targeted whistleblowers in the cases.
Christopher Shea Wilkes, a social worker at Overton Brooks, said he was contacted by the inspector general’s office after he complained about the off-the-books waiting lists at the facility. He said he first thought the investigators were looking into his allegations but found out they were actually conducting a criminal probe into how he obtained the list and whether he had shared it with anyone.
The whistleblower at the Hines VA hospital, social worker Germaine Clarno, was also subjected to attacks, according to the Office of Special Counsel review.
"Finally, the content and the tenor of the report OIG prepared demonstrate hostility toward Ms. Clarno apparently for having spoken publicly, as well as an attempt to minimize her allegations," the special counsel said.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), who has held hearings on misconduct at the VA and retaliation against whistleblowers, praised the Office of Special Counsel report on Friday.
"Veterans at Hines have waited over two years to finally learn the truth – schedulers maintained secret wait lists in order to receive cash bonuses," Kirk said. "The OSC letter to the President shows another example of the VA culture – attack whistleblowers instead of protecting vets. This report is a victory for whistleblowers who risk retaliation, firing and even criminal investigation when they stand up for vets."
Kirk said it was "long past time for the VA to conduct a real investigation into whistleblower allegations at Hines, determine how many veterans were harmed and if any died as a result of this scandal, and fire those responsible for covering it up."
Clarno, who has been working closely with Kirk’s office on this issue, said she will continue to push for reforms at Hines despite the alleged retaliation from VA officials.
"Two years ago I went public to report secret wait lists and the gaming of wait times for veterans," Clarno said. "I expected that I would be the target of retaliation and harassment at Hines but I soon realized the Office of Inspector General, the very agency that was supposed to help whistleblowers and bring to light their claims, would instead use the same tactics and work to discredit us instead of fixing the problems hurting veterans. I won't be stopped by retaliation at Hines or even from the OIG, I will continue to advocate for our veterans with Senator Kirk until the VA is fixed."
The VA inspector general’s office did not respond to request for comment.