WASHINGTON—In 2014, Katherine Mitchell, MD, was one of a handful of employees at the Phoenix VAMC who blew the whistle on hospital leadership for keeping a separate, secret list of veterans seeking healthcare—a numerical sleight-of-hand that allowed them to artificially decrease the facility’s wait times. The revelation would make national headlines and shine a spotlight on problems veterans have accessing care, and its reverberations are still being felt today.
A few months after Mitchell and her colleagues came forward, Minu Aghelvi, PhD, a Baltimore VA psychologist working in opioid addiction treatment was asked by her superiors to begin to remove veterans from the electronic waitlist and give them appointments in an imaginary clinic. According to Aghelvi, her superiors were concerned that their long waitlist would draw Congress’ attention in the wake of the revelations at Phoenix. Aghelvi subsequently blew the whistle on what was going on at the Baltimore VA.
Both testified before Congress last month that, five years on, they are still the targets of constant, insidious retaliation from VA superiors. The day prior to her testimony, Aglelvi was informed that VA was beginning the process of terminating her employment, a move she suggested is punishment for speaking out and a warning against any other VA employees who are considering coming forward about abuses at the agency.
“Two weeks ago, I told my supervisors that I was going to testify at this hearing. I sent them a copy of the invitation. Yesterday, I was informed that they were starting the process to remove me,” Aghelvi told members of the House VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “Under the Whistleblower Protection Act provisions, this feels obviously retaliatory. Worse than that, I feel like I’m being used as a threat against other employees who might feel about speaking up about patient care concerns.”
While Mitchell’s whistleblowing made national headlines, and Aghelvi’s is relatively unknown beyond the Baltimore VA, the retaliation actions they revealed were similar. Both spoke of VA management stripping them of authority in ways that have been humiliating, and of superiors revoking their duties to so that they are unable to do the work they love.
“The retaliation never stopped. It just changed,” explained Mitchell. “Before, it was making me work unlimited hours without compensation or dropping my performance scores. Now it’s excluding me from any opportunity I have to participate in patient care. … For two years, I was banned from initiating contact with all medical center staff in my region. From 2014 to 2018, I had no regular assignments. Although I am trained as a VA quality scholar, I am excluded from almost every oversight activity, and I am not officially allowed to intervene in patient care problems.”
Aghelvi’s supervisors threatened to remove her as coordinator of the opioid agonist treatment program, rescinding the order at the last minute. Last year, after reporting concerns about a patient death, she was threatened with a reprimand. And earlier this year, the agency informed her they were summarily suspending her clinical privileges.
“The stated reason for this was that I had gone to visit a high-risk patient in a community hospital after he had overdosed, been treated in our ER, and then discharged. For the past two months I have forbidden from talking to any patients,” Aghelvi told the committee. “I’ve taken care of some of my patients for almost 20 years. I see some of them every day. They are like my family. It has broken my heart not to see them these last two months. Sometimes I am the most stable person in their lives. When I disappear, it affects them. Recovery from addiction is so difficult. It’s easy to give up on yourself when you think you’re not worth fighting for.”
Both women told legislators that one of the reasons their supervisors felt free to abuse them was that there is no effective whistleblower protection in place at VA. “There are no easy avenues to obtain relief from VA retaliation, and VA administrators know it,” Mitchell declared.
They had each contacted the VA Office of Special Counsel and later the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, a new office created by President Donald Trump through executive order in 2017.
“[My VA supervisors] refused to respond when OSC contacted them, and I had to file another retaliation complaint, then wait 15 months because there was a backlog,” Mitchell testified. “I contacted OAWP in 2017 looking to file a claim. Sixteen months later, I finally got a response asking if I was still interested in filing.”
In October 2018, OSC found evidence of ongoing retaliation against Mitchell. She entered into mediation with VA through the OSC’s alternative dispute resolution process. As of her testimony, that mediation had dragged on for nine months with no end in sight.
According to some critics, OAWP has added bureaucracy rather than protection for whistleblowers.
“While the impetus behind the agency is sensible, [when it was created, we were concerned] that creating such an office within the agency itself will cause more harm than good,” explained Rebecca Jones, policy counsel for the Project on Government Oversight. “We worried that the internal office would become a clearing house used to identify and retaliate against whistleblowers, and that it wouldn’t hold senior officials accountable due to its lack of independence.”
Some of those initial fears might be proving true, Jones noted. Last year, both the Government Accountability Office and OAWP itself released reports suggesting that the office bends justice in favor of accused VA leadership.
During the first year of OAWP’s existence, 36.4% of disciplinary actions were taken against G1-G6 employees and only 0.1% were against senior leadership.
“The reports also found that employees accused of misconduct were participating in investigations into their own behavior,” Jones testified. “This includes managers investigating themselves or misconduct.”
OAWP is currently the subject of an ongoing investigation at the VA Office of the Inspector General.
The hearing last month did not include invitations to VA leadership to testify, a fact that upset some Republican legislators, as well as VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.
“When the committee holds a hearing to air criticisms of the department, while simultaneously preventing the department from participating to offer context and defend itself, the committee’s efforts risk appearing more like a political press conference than a hearing aimed at a balanced look at serious issues,” Wilkie said in a letter to committee leaders. “If this is how the committee intends to conduct oversight of the department in the future, an exclusionary approach could chip away at the committee’s oft stated goal of bipartisanship.”
Committee leaders almost immediately scheduled two future hearings—a continuation of the whistleblower hearing, and one looking at the ongoing effects of the revelations at Phoenix.
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