WASHINGTON—In response to recent recommendations by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson announced that the Department’s Office of Medical Inspector (OMI) will be restructured.
“ “Given recent revelations by the Office of Special Counsel, it is clear that we need to restructure the Office of Medical Inspector to create a strong internal audit function which will ensure issues of care quality and patient safety remain at the forefront,” Gibson said.
The action followed Gibson’s order for a “comprehensive review of all aspects of the Office of Medical Inspector’s operation, to be completed within 14 days.”
Gibson called for the review following the release of a letter from the OSC to President Barack Obama that stated that “too frequently, the VA has failed to use information from whistleblowers to identify and address systemic concerns that impact patient care.” The letter also noted that VA whistleblowers “struggle to overcome a culture of non-responsiveness.”
Even when problems are substantiated, Carolyn Lerner, who heads the OSC, wrote that “the VA, and particularly the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector (OMI), has consistently used a “harmless error” defense, where the department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected.”
“This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans,” she explained.
Lerner wrote that OSC continues to receive “a significant number of whistleblower disclosures from employees at VA facilities throughout the country.”
“We currently have over 50 pending cases, all of which allege threats to patient health or safety. I have referred 29 of these cases to the VA for investigation. This represents over a quarter of all cases referred by OSC for investigation government-wide,” she wrote.
The OSC recommended that VA’s new leadership “review its process for responding to OSC whistleblower cases.”
VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a written statement that he respects and welcomes the OSC letter.
“I am deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously,” he wrote.
As long-term restructuring moves forward, Gibson has directed the immediate appointment of an interim Director of OMI from outside the current office to assist with transition, and that OMI’s hotline be suspended and that all hotline calls be referred to Office of Inspector General (OIG).