WASHINGTON — Some Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees are finding when they blow the whistle on problems at the agency, there's a steep price to pay for speaking truth to power.
That's when they become victims of workplace retaliation.
"VA is entrusted with providing the highest quality service as possible to our nation's veterans," said Rep. Mark Takano (D-California), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "And the department must listen when its employees have the courage to speak up about wrongdoing."
At Thursday's hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, lawmakers were told some of the VA's more than 400,000 employees are raising concerns about a hostile work environment. They were told the VA had taken disciplinary action against only half of the senior leaders and supervisors accused of misconduct and whistleblower retaliation.
"Whistleblowers play an essential role to safeguard the federal government against waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement," said Rep Chris Pappas (D-New Hampshire). "Department employees often witness problems that put the health, safety and well-being of veterans at risk. In the best of circumstances, when serious problems are pointed out by VA staff, corrective action is taken. Too often, though, the messenger is the one punished."
The Protecting VA Employees Act is designed to protect and defend legitimate whistleblowers at the VA.
The measure would require the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection to refer all whistleblower allegations to the Office of Special Counsel, which is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency.
Lawmakers heard Thursday that the bill is very much needed.
Whistleblower advocates and oversight groups say the VA accountability office hasn’t done nearly enough to earn the trust of employees.
"The VA should not investigate itself," said Jacqueline Garrick, the founder of Whistleblowers of America. "There are multiple failures because the fox is guarding the hen house."
The nonpartisan independent watchdog Project On Government Oversight is calling for more protection for employees and more accountability at the VA.
Department data shows that the VA had 9.16 million veterans enrolled in its health care system in Fiscal Year 2020.