The Department of Veterans Affairs continues to struggle to protect whistleblowers in its ranks, with two-thirds of whistleblowers reporting allegations of retaliation from 2018 to 2022, the Government Accountability Office has found.
Overall, allegations of retaliation against all federal whistleblowers declined from 2018 to 2022, but cases at the VA involving retaliation rose during the time frame, according to a GAO briefing to members of Congress in February that was released Wednesday.
The watchdog agency found that VA cases alleging whistleblower retaliation or other prohibited practices make up more than a third of the workload of the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates and prosecutes personnel impropriety across the federal government.
The VA has a history of failing employees who report wrongdoing, including firing a clinical psychologist in 2019 the day before she was set to testify before Congress about the department's treatment of whistleblowers.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a VA doctor who exposed the 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA Medical Center over appointment wait times, was allowed to return to work but then faced retaliation.
Jeff Dettbarn, a VA employee who blew the whistle in 2017 on diagnostic exams being canceled at the VA Medical Center in Iowa City, Iowa, without a doctor's order, and testified in Congress, was returned to the same job without any protection and saw his responsibilities removed and salary lowered.
In 2019, the VA's own Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, created in 2017 to address the department's handling of whistleblowers, came under fire itself for reprisals against employees who said the office wasn't holding top executives accountable.
Members of Congress have pledged to rein in mistreatment of whistleblowers at VA, holding hearings and requesting that the GAO monitor cases that involve allegations of retaliation.
During a hearing last year, Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., noted that while the VA's Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection made 15 recommendations for actions to be taken against employees who retaliated, two-thirds of those were not implemented and only one was fully in place.
"This is just completely unacceptable," Pappas said during a June hearing of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee panel on oversight and investigations. "VA must also do better making whistleblowers whole after they suffer retaliation."
As part of its interim report to Congress, GAO found that such cases take longer to adjudicate than normal personnel complaints, by an average of 11 days. But the percentage of cases that have closed with a favorable action for the complainant tripled from 2018 to 2022, rising from 3% to 10%.
However, most of the whistleblower retaliation cases reviewed by OSC during the time frame, 59%, were closed as a result of insufficient evidence.
A VA spokesman said Friday that the number of cases of whistleblower retaliation reviewed by the Office of Special Counsel has declined by 42% in the past five years but the department still has work to do.
“Any retaliation for whistleblowers is unacceptable, and we continue to place a heavy focus on whistleblower rights and protections training for managers, supervisors, and employees – including communicating the remedies for employees who believe they have experienced retaliation,” VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said in an email.
“We will not rest until we ensure that every whistleblower is respected, protected, and empowered at VA, every time,” Hayes added.
VA officials acknowledged during the hearing last year that turmoil at the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, or OAWP, has eroded the trust that it is supposed to engender in employees who report wrongdoing.
Maryanne Donaghy, assistant secretary for accountability and whistleblower protection, said, however, that the department has made strides in reforming the office, with a goal to ensure that whistleblowers are heard and protected.
"Simply put, the OAWP of 2019 is not the same office as the OAWP of 2022. And driven by a dedicated staff, OAWP will continue to improve," Donaghy said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comment from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime