WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Whistleblowers who reported wrongdoing at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs between 2010 and 2014 faced greater risk of disciplinary action than other employees, according to a study released on Thursday by a congressional watchdog.
The department, which provides healthcare and benefits to about nine million military veterans, also often fails to hold senior officials accountable for proven wrongdoing, the study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found.
Four years ago a scandal over delays in veterans’ healthcare forced the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted a major effort to reform the department to reduce patient wait times for services.
Congress passed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act in 2017 in a bid to make it easier to dismiss employees for misconduct while protecting those who attempt to shed light on wrongdoing.
The GAO report underscored the problems faced by the department.
Of 135 cases reported to the VA’s Office of Special Counsel between 2010 and 2014 by whistleblowers who did not seek anonymity in reporting wrongdoing, 10 percent received some sort of disciplinary action in the year they reported misconduct and 8 percent received adverse action the next year, the GAO said.
By comparison, only about 1 percent of the rest of Veterans Affairs employees received some form of disciplinary action, said the GAO, which solicited the VA’s input and data and sought its feedback for the report.
Six whistleblowers interviewed by the GAO said they faced several different forms of retaliation, including reassignment to other duty locations, being denied needed equipment and being socially isolated from peers.
In five of 17 cases the GAO reviewed, officials found responsible for misconduct never received the recommended disciplinary action against them.
VA data showed that people who reported misconduct to the VA’s special counsel “received disciplinary action, and left the agency, at a higher rate than the peer average for the rest of the VA,” the GAO said.
It noted that some VA officials believe people facing disciplinary action were more likely to become whistleblowers and report perceived misconduct.
The disciplinary action against whistleblowers is greater than the VA population as a whole and while that “is consistent with a pattern of retaliation for nonanonymous whistleblowers, it is only an indication that retaliation could be occurring,” the GAO said.
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Grant McCool