Whistleblowers say retaliation by VA supervisors continues, a year after scandal

The Department of Veterans Affairs continues to retaliate against whistleblowers despite repeated pledges to stop punishing those who speak up, a national group said Tuesday. One called the department's office of inspector general a "joke."

VA whistleblowers from across the country told a Senate committee that the department has failed to hold supervisors accountable more than a year after a scandal that broke over chronic delays for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records covering up the waits.

Shea Wilkes, a mental health social worker at the Shreveport, Louisiana, VA hospital, said agency leaders are "more interested in perpetuating their own careers than caring for our veterans."

Wilkes, who helped organize a group known as "VA Truth Tellers," said "years of cronyism and lack of accountability have allowed at least two generations of poor, incompetent leaders to plant themselves within the system," isolating the VA "from the real world of efficient and effective medical treatment" for veterans.

"Until we are able to protect whistleblowers and potential whistleblowers, the true depth of the corruption within the VA will not be known," Wilkes said, calling the VA's office of inspector general a "joke." The office has not had a permanent leader since December 2013.

Republicans and Democrats on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee called the testimony appalling and urged President Barack Obama to appoint a permanent inspector general at the minimum.

Sen. Ron Johnson, the panel's chairman, said the appointment would be a "basic first step" to help ensure the office is transparent and independent. Johnson, R-Wis., said the VA "has a cultural problem" of retaliating against whistleblowers that must be fixed.

Dr. Carolyn Clancy, chief medical officer for the Veterans Health Administration, the agency's health care arm, said the department's responsibility to protect whistleblowers "is an integral part of our obligation to provide safe, high-quality health care. Retaliation against whistleblowers who have demonstrated the moral courage to share their concerns is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated."

But Johnson said the VA was not living up to those ideals. Whistleblower retaliation and abuse of authority by management at the Tomah, Wis., veterans hospital "created a culture of fear among the staff that compromised veteran care," he said. If hospital leaders and the inspector general's office had listened to whistleblowers, Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski "may have not been prescribed the lethal mixture of 13 different medications that killed him" last year, Johnson said.

The inspector general's office completed an investigation of excessive opiate prescriptions at Tomah last year but closed the case without sharing findings with the public or Congress.

Five months later, in August 2014, the 35-year-old Simcakoski died in the hospital's short-stay mental health unit from "mixed drug toxicity" that included taking 13 prescribed medications in a 24-hour period.

An investigation by the IG's office discovered that psychiatrists did not discuss with Simcakoski or his family the hazards of a synthetic opiate he was prescribed, acted too slowly when he was found unresponsive and did not have anti-overdose medicine on hand. One physician who attended him was fired.

Sean Kirkpatrick, whose brother Christopher was a psychologist and whistleblower at the Tomah hospital, said his brother frequently told his family he was concerned about the overmedication of many of his veteran patients. Christopher Kirkpatrick killed himself in 2009. He had been fired after filing a complaint about narcotics abuse at the Tomah site.

An inspector general's report in June 2015 noted the presence of marijuana in Kirkpatrick's system and made other allegations about drug use. Sean Kirkpatrick called the report "beyond offensive and disturbing for our family," adding: "VA acts as if it's above the law, and it's wrong."

Johnson called the report on Chris Kirkpatrick deeply offensive and an indication that the IG's office takes the agency's side in reviewing whistleblower complaints.

"That sounds like a reprisal to me to a dead person," Johnson said.

Linda Halliday, the acting inspector general, said she did not write the Kirkpatrick report and did not know who did. Halliday became acting IG in July after Richard Griffin retired.

The whistleblowers group and some Republican lawmakers criticized Griffin when his office issued a report that identified 40 patients who died while awaiting appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital, but said officials could not "conclusively assert" that delays in care caused the deaths. Phoenix was the epicenter of the wait-time scandal that led to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a new law overhauling the agency and authorizing billions in new spending.

Griffin also came under fire after USA Today reported last year that his office had declined to release 140 other reports on health care investigations across the country since 2006, including substantiated cases of veteran harm and death.

Reach Matthew Daly: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC