Whistleblowers describe culture of fear at VA

Atlanta whistleblower Scott Davis tells House Veterans’ Affairs Committee veteran health applications languish at DeKalb administrative facility.

Digging deep

The AJC was the first news outlet to report allegations of mismanagement at the Health Eligibility Center in DeKalb County. The coverage led the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to whistleblower Scott Davis, who testified before the committee Tuesday. Count on the AJC to break more news on this important national story.

Washington — For months, VA whistleblower Scott Davis felt ignored and retaliated against when he tried to expose problems at a national veterans health enrollment and eligibility office in Atlanta.

On Tuesday, someone with power in Washington finally listened.

Davis along with three other VA whistleblowers from across the country testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, describing the harm veterans endured and the culture of abuse faced by employees who spoke out about these failings within the VA. Davis said when he filed whistleblower complaints about problems at the Health Eligibility Center (HEC) his complaints were leaked back to supervisors at the center.

Davis told members of the 25-member Congressional committee that thousands of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had their applications for VA health care access languish at the national HEC in DeKalb County.

As many as 40,000 unprocessed health applications were discovered by HEC last year, primarily from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I urge the committee to take prompt action as time is running out,” said Davis, appearing calm and confident throughout the two-hour hearing. “Every day a window of opportunity is closing on a veteran to receive care before irreparable harm is done to their health and mental well-being.”

Speaking under the committee room’s domed ceiling, complete with 21 flags of veterans service organizations lining the wall, Davis gave sworn testimony about other problems brought to light by whistleblowers at the HEC, an administrative office separate from from the VA Medical Center near Decatur.

He described a backlog of 600,000 pending veteran benefit enrollment applications; the possible improper purging of more than 10,000 veteran health records; mismanagement of health programs to assist veterans and millions of dollars wasted on a direct mail marketing campaign to promote the Affordable Care Act to veterans.

The HEC, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs, oversees enrollment and eligibility for veterans seeking to enter the VA health system nationwide.

“Imagine a year’s worth of applications sitting,” Davis told the committee, referring to the backlog of 600,000 pending applications.

The AJC reported Davis’ story in an exclusive June 29. Just days after the article, he was contacted by the committee about testifying at Tuesday’s hearing. Other VA whistleblowers in the HEC office and at the Atlanta VA Medical Center have contacted Davis since the AJC’s article ran.

Davis shared some of their stories with the committee. They include a couple who work at the VA hospital and have experienced retaliation for reporting medical errors and patient neglect. They have also spoken out about misconduct of senior police officials at the hospital, Davis said.

He championed the local union president who was regularly harassed when she tried to assist him or other employees struggling against retaliation by HEC management. He also described how an investigation into the shredding of 2,000 applications of veterans seeking health care abruptly ended at the direction of senior supervisors.

“Despite the best efforts of truly dedicated employees at HEC and the Veterans Health Administration (a division at the VA), who have risked their careers to stand up for veterans, management at all levels ignored or retaliated against them for exposing the truth,” Davis said.

The committee’s focus on whistleblowers follows a steady drumbeat of troubles for the agency charged with caring for the nation’s veterans. Veterans at medical centers across the country, including in Atlanta, have faced wait times of several months for appointments, leading to several resignations of top VA officials.

Last month, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held hearings on the VA’s practice of awarding bonuses to senior leaders, despite poor performance at the facilities they administered.

Congressional members in both the House and Senate are wrangling over supplemental funding for the VA intended to ease the wait times for veterans seeking care, and veterans issues figure to play a prominent role in the November mid-term elections.

The others who testified at Tuesday’s hearing included Dr. Jose Mathews, a former chief of psychiatry at the St. Louis VA; Dr Christian Head, an associate director at the Greater Los Angeles VA; Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a medical director at the Phoenix VA. Each of them told a different version of the same tale.

They ran up against a culture at the VA where those who speak out are attacked, demeaned, their careers placed in jeopardy when they speak out.

“This is not an academic exercise,” Mathews told the committee. “It really hurts the lives of veterans.”

Members from both parties on the committee spoke in support of whistleblowers and their courage for stepping forward at great risk to their careers. Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said people speaking out within the system when they see problems that harm veterans are critical to bringing issues to light.

“In everyone of these locations whistleblowers played a vital role,” Miller said.

Each of the whistleblowers were asked what needs to be done to improve protections so whistleblowers can come forward. Davis said managers who retaliate against whistleblowers know they have nothing at stake because the government picks up their legal fees.

He said he knows of managers with multiple employment complaints against them.

“You need to start making bad managers pay their own legal fees,” he said.