Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (“PHS”) officers are on the front lines of protecting the American people from Coronavirus. They work in critical health and safety agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control. Unfortunately, most Americans (and Members of Congress) are not aware that PHS officers are not normal federal employees. Instead, the PHS Commissioned Corps officers technically work for an obscure branch of the federal government known as the “unarmed services.” The whistleblower law that applies to the military provides the PHS officers’ whistleblower protections.
PHS employees have among the worst whistleblower rights of any class of employees in the United States. When faced with retaliation for reporting significant threats to public health and safety, they lack the fundamental due process rights. Their protections fall radically short of whistleblower rights afforded other federal employees, state and local government employees, and corporate employees.
Worse still, the definition of a protected whistleblower disclosure is extremely limited. It does not cover raising concerns with state and local health officials or doctors treating virus patients.
The statute and regulations covering PHS Commissioned Corps whistleblowers do not provide for court access, let alone jury trials. There is no provision for the payment of attorney fees or costs incurred by a PHS employee. There is no provision mandating the payment of back pay. A reading of the HHS procedures governing PHS whistleblowers demonstrates a complete lack of protection. The materials published by the military’s Inspector General reflects this lack of effective protection.
Congress must immediately ensure that PHS employees have the same rights as other federal employees who work in critical areas related to public health and safety. The fact that whistleblowers report they are suffering retaliation in both the United States and China based on their Coronavirus safety concerns demonstrates the urgent need for Congressional action.
Federal employees who work for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Department of Energy and raise nuclear safety concerns have strong whistleblower rights. They can take their cases to court and have guaranteed the right to reinstatement, back pay, attorney fees, and compensatory damages. PHS employees deserve the same rights as those afforded federal employees working for the NRC or DOE who raise safety concerns.
The American public and Congress need to hear the truth about the Coronavirus. We need to learn from whistleblowers if there is any misconduct in the administration of the $8 billion allocated to fight this terrible disease. We need to know if lives risked due to illegal conduct, gross mismanagement, frauds in spending the billions allocated to fight the virus, abuses of authority in the administration of the programs, or other wrongdoing.
Congress must act now to ensure the full protection of PHS whistleblowers who report health and safety concerns regarding the Coronavirus!
Stephen M. Kohn is the Chairman of the National Whistleblower Center.