President Trump promised better protections for Veterans Affairs whistleblowers. But, VA staff say the office set up to protect them actually works against them.
On Tuesday, the head of the office testified that they would do better. From USA Today:
Tamara Bonzanto, who took over as assistant VA secretary overseeing the office in January, said she and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie “understand the sense of urgency to improve operations” and her staff is “actively working” to implement changes to “better protect whistleblowers.”
Also on Tuesday, a New Hampshire VA Medical Center doctor and whistleblower was killed in a one-car crash in Hampton, New Hampshire. William “Ed” Kois, MD, head of the Manchester VA’s spinal clinic, worked with the Boston Globe on a series of stories about poor care at the hospital. The reporting led to reforms and Kois “became the face of the whistleblowers,” according to a tribute in Manchester news site Ink Link. Kois called the VA’s ultimate dismissal of some of his claims “a complete whitewash.”
Whistleblowers have played key roles in exposing poor care at some of the nation’s VA hospitals. In June, the committee heard testimony from three VA health care employees who said agency officials have been trying to silence them since they reported patient care problems. Prior to that meeting, their stories were detailed by USA Today.
A report on the Tuesday hearing from a veteran’s run site called ConnectingVets offered some details of Bonzanto’s testimony.
Whistleblowers at both hearings said they sought help at OAWP but the office is often understaffed, underfunded and faces backlogs of thousands of cases, among other issues.
“The results aren’t getting better for us,” Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, said Tuesday. “The problem isn’t going away and it’s not surprising that it’s not going away.”
Bonzanto offered a list of planned improvements at the hearing, according to the report.
- Providing standardized training for all OAWP investigators;
- Issuing a written VA policy on how the office investigates whistleblower reports;
- Working with VA’s Inspector General and special counsel to finalize training for all VA employees, including ways to become a whistleblower, prohibitions against retaliation and penalties;
- Refining investigation processes to ensure investigations are done in a timely manner.
But, she also noted: “There is room for improvement. I admit to that.”
The story quoted Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. “Frankly, the testimony today left me wanting more and I remain concerned. ”
A video of the hearing is available on YouTube.