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How whistleblowers exposed critical lapses at VA Department

Yet rather than moving toward transparency and correcting the ills that resulted in the deaths of many vets who languished on waiting lists, sometimes for months or years, the VA has lashed out at those who exposed its failings. A government watchdog group, Project on Government Oversight, revealed last year that more than 800 former and current VA employees and veterans experienced whistleblower backlash from the Veterans Administration. POGO says this they “have never received as many submissions on a single issue.”

By the time whistleblower revelations blew up the Veterans Administration’s secret waiting lists, devastatingly long wait times and overprescribing programs, thousands of veterans had died and tens of thousands more had suffered devastating health consequences. The real concern is that whistleblowers pushing for change and better patient outcomes were placed on leave, terminated or transferred out of their roles. Who then has taken over the duties of these concerned caregivers? And are their replacements allowing the careless caregiving to thrive under their tenure?

The Washington Post covered the case of whistleblower Brandon Coleman, who had spearheaded a program at the VA hospital in Phoenix to help suicidal patients. The program he designed identified and rehabilitated 51 vets at risk for self-harm. When he raised concerns after he noticed five suicidal veterans left the ER untreated, he was placed on administrative leave, and his therapy program was axed. One of Coleman’s therapy patients said the group was devastated to have lost Coleman saying, “There’s no one who can teach this program the way he teaches it. We have veterans crying over it.” The VA declined to respond to the newspapers queries about Coleman’s treatment.

Unfortunately, Coleman’s case is far from rare. But he was lucky in that, for now, he’s on paid leave while many other whistleblowers were dismissed or are stuck on unpaid leave despite protections promised by law. Newly appointed VA Secretary Robert McDonald states on the VA website: “VA takes whistleblower complaints seriously and will not tolerate retaliation against those who raise issues which may enable VA to better serve Veterans.” Clearly what’s being said at the top of the Veteran’s Administration is not what’s happening on the ground at the facilities.

It’s bad enough that the VA system has been operating inefficiently and scrambling to rehabilitate its reputation, but external fraud further exacerbates the issue. Some individuals have masqueraded as vets to gain access to health services in a crime called Stolen Valor which takes caregiver time away from actual veterans with legitimate health care needs. Still others took advantage of the VA by falsifying work claims or by masquerading as veterans to take advantage of VA contract programs through the Department of Defense and other agencies.

For those that observe fraudulent conduct related to a governmental agency, it’s a civic responsibility to act as a whistleblower. However, based on what’s happening to those who cried foul on shady VA activities, the notion may be scary. A better option may be to use the Qui Tam whistleblower mechanism that allows the person who observes the fraud to sue the perpetrator on behalf of the government. Not only does the law firm that files the Qui Tam suit shield the whistleblower from retaliation but, rewards the person that reported the fraud with a share of the winnings. This can be an incentive to brave the very real possibility of retaliation – despite assurances from the VA and other agencies that retribution is not tolerated.

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