VA mishandled whistleblower complaints about patient care, investigator says

BY Kevin Freking, Associated Press  June 23, 2014 at 12:03 PM EDT
Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, sent a letter to President Barack Obama, saying the VA has long dismissed complaints about patient care within the system. Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, sent a letter to President Barack Obama, saying the VA has long dismissed complaints about patient care within the system. Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON (AP) — A top federal investigator said Monday that the Department of Veterans Affairs is risking patients’ health by not fully addressing whistleblower complaints about the quality of care. The VA’s acting director responded by launching an agency review.

VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson said he was “deeply disappointed” in his own agency’s failure to take the complaints seriously.

In a letter to President Barack Obama, Carolyn Lerner of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Monday that the VA consistently acknowledges problems but says patient care is not affected.

“This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans,” Lerner wrote to Obama. “As a result, veterans’ health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk.”

Complaints about lack of access to VA health care have prompted a national outcry that led to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation. The most startling allegations have arisen out of the VA’s medical center in Phoenix, where a VA inspector general’s investigation found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” after being kept off an official, electronic waiting list.

Lerner says the office is reviewing more than 50 complaints alleging threats to patient health and safety and has referred 29 of them to the VA for investigation.

Gibson said he would be designating an official to assess the conclusions reached by the Office of Special Counsel, as well as its proposed corrective actions.

He said the review would be completed within 14 days.

“I respect and welcome the letter and the insights from the Office of Special Counsel,” Gibson said. “I am deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously.”