SAN ANTONIO — Investigators said they are examining allegations that supervisors in the veterans’ health system retaliated against 37 employees who complained about practices such as falsified records used to cover up months-long delays in scheduling appointments. The acting VA chief said such reprisals would not be tolerated.
“I think that is wrong. It is absolutely unacceptable,” Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson said Friday.
“There have been questions raised about intimidation or even retaliation. There is a law that forbids that, and we’ll follow the law,” Gibson said at a news conference Friday following a visit to a San Antonio VA facility.
His comments came after the Office of Special Counsel said it was looking into possible retaliation against 37 employees of the VA who filed so-called “whistleblower” complaints.
The office is an independent watchdog separate from the VA which looks into whistleblower complaints from across the federal government.But one of the 37 who complained of reprisals, Brian Turner, said he is not reassured by Gibson’s vow to discipline those who retaliated. Turner, who works at North Central Federal Clinic in San Antonio, said he was intimidated by his supervisors for complaining that scheduling clerks in San Antonio, Austin and Waco, Texas, were regularly told to enter false information to make it appear that wait times for appointments were far shorter than they really were.
“I don’t care about what (Gibson) said. I want to see action,” Turner told the Associated Press in an interview Friday.
The Office of Special Counsel said it had blocked disciplinary actions against three VA employees who had complained, including one who was suspended for seven days after complaining to the VA’s inspector general about improper scheduling.
The agency also blocked a 30-day suspension without pay for another VA employee who reported inappropriate use of patient restraints and blocked demotion of a third employee who reported mishandling of patient care funds.
The complaints about retaliation against whistleblowers came from 28 VA facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico, the special counsel’s office said Friday. About half the 37 complaints have come in the last two months, or after allegations about treatment delays of up to three months for veterans and secret waiting lists first surfaced.
The disclosures have set off a furor in Washington, forcing the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week, and prompting Congress to consider legislation to make it easier for treatment of veterans outside the government-funded VA.