An order signed by President Trump last month, the “VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017,” will provide stronger protections to whistleblowers within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), USA Today reported. The act reinforces the new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection created within the department earlier this year to investigate whistleblowers’ claims in a timelier manner and to protect them from retaliation.
These added protections are a welcomed change by whistleblowers who recently helped uncover the department’s deficiencies in caring for the nation’s veterans.
In 2014, Pauline Dewenter could not remain silent any longer after learning that a navy veteran was the most recent to die while on a “secret waiting” list at the Phoenix VA Health Care System in Arizona. As a scheduling clerk at the facility, Ms. Dewenter was inadvertently placed in a position of determining who on the waiting list got appointments. She knew the practice was not right and “blew the whistle” about a list of veterans waiting to receive care – some for as long as four months.
The facility maintained the list and she discovered that records were changed or physically altered “to hide how many people died while waiting for care.” A report released by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) at the same time revealed that “[n]early 1,000 veterans’ deaths have been linked to…substandard care.” Ms. Dewenter admitted she believed more people would come forward, but they feared retaliation.
Even as recently as May, whistleblowers like Dr. Dale Klein, a doctor at John J. Pershing VA Medical Center in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, described how a culture of retaliation still exists within the VA, according to FOX News. In May, Dr. Klein’s employment was supposed to be terminated, but instead he returned to work only to sit in his office all day without seeing patients – something he has been doing for a year since he spoke out about substandard care practices at the facility.
The Yale University fellow was hired to establish a pain management clinic, but after voicing concerns about waiting lists for veterans seeking care Dr. Klein says the VA took away his patients and privileges and attempted to fire him. However, the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency in Washington, D.C., informed the VA that the doctor could not be fired because he is a whistleblower. Instead, Dr. Klein continues to receive his $250,000 annual salary despite not working with the veterans he wishes to help.
While it better protects whistleblowers like Ms. Dewenter and Dr. Klein, the act also reduces the time allowed for employees to appeal disciplinary actions and requires courts reviewing the actions to support them if they find “substantial evidence” that an action was appropriate. These measures allow the department to terminate problem employees more quickly – ensuring more accountability for the services provided for our country’s veterans.
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Are you aware of fraud being committed against the federal government, or a state government? If so, you may be protected and rewarded for doing the right thing by reporting the fraud. If you have any questions about whether you qualify as a whistleblower, please contact an attorney at Beasley Allen for a free and confidential evaluation of your claim. There is a contact form on this website, or you may email one of the lawyers on our whistleblower litigation team: Archie Grubb, Larry Golston, Lance Gould or Andrew Brashier.
Senator Tom Coburn