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VA Physicians Testify about Harsh Retaliation for Blowing Whistles on Care Issues

By U.S. Medicine

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON – Retaliation against physicians and other employees who voice complaints is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the agency, a senior VA official emphasized to lawmakers at a House hearing last month.

Dr. Jose Mathews, former Chief of Psychiatry at the St. Louis VA Health Care System, testified before Congress about the retaliation he experienced after he blew the whistle. Photo courtesy of the Project on Government Oversight.

Dr. Jose Mathews, former Chief of Psychiatry at the St. Louis VA Health Care System, testified before Congress about the retaliation he experienced after he blew the whistle. Photo courtesy of the Project on Government Oversight.

“I apologize to every one of our employees who feels that their voice has been silenced and their passion has been stifled, because that is not acceptable,” said James Tuchschmidt, MD, VA acting principal deputy under secretary for health. “Quite frankly, I am past being upset and mad and angry about this. I am very disillusioned and sickened by all of this.”

Tuchschmidt made his comments at a House Veterans Affairs hearing following testimony by VA physician whistleblowers who recounted how retaliation against those who speak up about problems at VA is “alive and well.”

“The harm it causes the family members of federal workers who are being retaliated against cannot be measured,” said Christian Head, MD, Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care System associate director and chief of staff of legal and quality assurance. Head added that some VA employees perpetuate the idea that “we should be silent, that we shouldn’t stand up and do the right thing.”

Katherine Mitchell, MD, Phoenix VA Health Care System Iraq and Afghanistan Post-Deployment Center medical director, testified that she faced years of retaliation for reporting patient health and safety concerns. She alleged that VA physicians who speak up about problems can be at risk for retaliation in the form of sham peer reviews to sabotage their  credibility.

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“In the medical community, peer reviews are only done if there are huge red flags. That is the reason that, if you are ever the subject of a peer review, you have to report it on a license or on a job application,” she explained.


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