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Price of coming forward: 37 VA whistle-blowers claim retaliation

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The joint effort by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) aims to “bring accountability” to the department by allowing whistleblowers to expose corruption anonymously.

Dozens of Veterans Affairs workers who have come forward with stories of mismanagement and patient abuse say they have faced retaliation within the scandal-scarred agency, according to federal investigators.

In one case, a VA employee with a spotless record over two decades was suspended after reporting patients had been inappropriately restrained, according to one of 37 such complaints filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC). In another case, an employee claimed to have been demoted after disclosing alleged mishandling of patient care funds. The employee was temporarily reassigned and an investigation is still ongoing, OSC officials said.

The complaints, which involved VA facilities in 19 states, appear to show a culture that discourages whistle-bowing, said officials at the OSC, which is probing the claims.

“That fear is pervasive. But when there’s this much smoke, there’s often fire.”

- Joe Newman, Project on Government Oversight

“Receiving candid information about harmful practices from employees will be critical to the VA’s efforts to identify problems and find solutions,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement Thursday. “However, employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation.”

The OSC is an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency that polices treatment of federal employees and job applicants, focusing specifically on enforcement of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

The investigation of the claims of retribution does not include a separate OSC review of 49 employee reports related to waiting lists and other issues at 152 hospitals and more than 1,700 other VA sites nationwide. Some facilities have been accused of doctoring their books to hide the fact that patients died while languishing on waiting lists to see doctors.

Joe Newman, spokesman of the Project on Government Oversight, an activist group that launched its own VA-related whistle-blower website last month, said it's not surprising that bureaucrats are coming down on employees who come forward to help the agency reform.

“That fear is pervasive,” Newman told FoxNews.com, adding that most sources do not wish to be identified. “But when there’s this much smoke, there’s often fire.”

As of Thursday, at least 640 submissions have been received by VAOversight.org since May 15, Newman said, with the majority of those coming from veterans themselves and relatives. Roughly 20 percent of those, he said, were from current and former VA employees who had valid gripes.

“So they can’t all be classified as whistle-blower submissions, but we’re in the process of investigating some of those claims,” Newman said. “We’re not looking to make quick media hits. Our main goal is to analyze the systemic problems and find what solutions we can come up with.”

In a third case involving yet another facility, a VA employee at another facility received a seven-day suspension after telling the inspector general's office about improper scheduling and coding procedures.

None of the whistle-bowers or their VA facilities of employment were disclosed by the OSC.

Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned last month following widespread criticism over excessive waiting periods for care and falsified records at VA facilities nationwide that provide medical care to about 9 million veterans and family members. Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff and four-star general, also promised prior to his exit that whistle-blowers would not be penalized for speaking up.

“I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our healthcare facilities,” Shinseki told a conference on homeless veterans last month. “This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform.

“I will not defend it because it is indefensible. But I can take responsibility for it, and I do,” he continued. “Given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs.’’

Veterans in Phoenix, for example, waited an average 115 days for appointments, or five times longer than the Phoenix VA had reported, the VA’s acting inspector general, Richard Griffin, told a Senate committee last month.

Griffin said his office is now probing more than 40 of the VA's 1,700 health care facilities nationwide.

The VA’s acting new boss, meanwhile, said Thursday that an additional 18 veterans whose names were kept off an official electronic VA appointment list have died. Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said he would ask Griffin to see if there is any indication those deaths were related to long wait times. Gibson said he was unsure whether the 18 new deaths were related to wait times, but said they were in addition to the 17 reported last month. If so, they would reach out to those veterans' families.

"I will come personally and apologize to the survivors," Gibson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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