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67 who blew lid off VA scandal claim agency retaliated against them

Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The VA hospital in Oakland, Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014, 10:54 p.m.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating six whistle-blower claims at five VA medical facilities in the Pittsburgh-based Veterans Integrated Services Network 4 region, the Tribune-Review has learned.

They are among investigations into 45 Veterans Affairs facilities nationwide, according to testimony before Congress this week by Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner.

Details of the investigations remain confidential, but a congressional source told the Trib that the Special Counsel's office is looking into single complaints at Veterans Affairs medical facilities in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Coatesville in Pennsylvania, and in Wilmington, Del.; and two complaints at the VA Altoona. VISN4 covers most of Pennsylvania and all or parts of five other states, including Delaware.

Gary Devansky, the interim director of VISN4 since the retirement of Michael Moreland, served as director of the Coatesville facility until Nov. 1.

The VA referred questions to the Special Counsel.

“All of these cases are dealing with the VA and involve health and safety,” Special Counsel spokesman Nick Schwellenbach told the Trib.

Sixty-seven investigations across the country involve alleged retaliation against whistle-blowers. Only one of the VISN 4 investigations involves retaliation, Schwellenbach said.

He declined to disclose details.

“In instance after instance at VA facilities around the country, brave VA employees who have spoken out about mismanagement and negligence that harms veterans have been harassed, punished and, in some cases, fired,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee before which Lerner testified. “Ideally, these courageous employees would be celebrated, but at today's Department of Veterans Affairs, they are persecuted.”

The Special Counsel investigates whistle-blower retaliation claims from among the 2.1 million federal workforce. Their workload increased in recent months as reports of VA malfeasance prompted other agency employees to come forward, Schwellenbach said.

By the year's end, VA complaints likely will eclipse those from the Department of Defense, which has more than twice as many civilian employees, he said.

Last year, the Defense Department's 718,000 employees filed 1,139 complaints. During the same time, the VA's 300,000 or so workers filed 985 complaints, according to the Special Counsel's annual report.

VA employees in recent months have told the Trib and others about systemic problems within the sprawling agency, including the use of “phantom clinics” and secret waiting lists that Pittsburgh administrators used to mask the length of time veterans had to wait for care. Several requested anonymity out of fear that VA executives would retaliate against them.

Similar revelations around the nation built an outcry that reached the Oval Office and led to the resignations and suspensions of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel and Chief Medical Inspector John R. Pierce.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson on Thursday announced that Dr. Gerard Cox will serve as interim director of the Office of Medical Inspector.

Shortly after Petzel left, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System Director Terry Gerigk Wolf told Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, about a secret waiting list in Pittsburgh. Two weeks later, VA executives suspended her indefinitely, citing a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA announced in November 2012 that killed at least six and sickened at least 16 others.

In addition to retaliation, whistle-blowers can bring allegations of wrongdoing directly to the Special Counsel's office, rather than their agencies' internal investigators, Schwellenbach said. Doing so affords the person an extra level of protection, he said.

“Right now, the lofty rhetoric coming out of VA's central office regarding whistle-blower protections doesn't even come close to matching the reality of what is happening on the ground. And until VA leaders at all levels take steps to fire anyone who engages in whistle-blower retaliation, it never will,” Miller said.

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900.

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