VA Settles With Three Phoenix Whistle-Blowers

The Department of Veterans Affairs has reached settlements with three individuals who worked at the agency's medical center in Phoenix and complained that they were subjected to retaliation for blowing the whistle on wrongdoing.

The settlements were announced Monday in separate statements issued by the VA and the Office of Special Counsel, the agency charged with investigating federal whistle-blower complaints. While the details of the settlements are confidential, both agencies said that two of the three whistle-blowers had accepted new positions within the VA.

The Office of Special Counsel's statement said the settlements were reached with former Phoenix VA emergency department director Dr. Katherine Mitchell, former Phoenix VA spokeswoman Paula Pedene and Damian Reese, a program analyst in Phoenix. The three individuals claimed retaliation for making disclosures about mismanagement at the Phoenix facility, including reassignment, demotion and downgrading of performance reviews. The special counsel said Mitchell and Pedene would assume new positions within the VA as part of the settlement.

The Phoenix medical center has been the epicenter of VA's ongoing health care access crisis since news organizations began reporting in April that dozens of veterans died while waiting for medical appointments. A final report by the VA's Office of the Inspector General, released Aug. 26, stated that in addition to the 1,400 veterans on the VA's electronic waiting list to schedule primary care appointments in Phoenix as of April 22, more than 3,500 were awaiting appointments on unofficial lists. The report states that investigators could not determine that wait times caused deaths at Phoenix, although officials from the Inspector General's Office later told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee that wait times may have contributed to deaths.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald told lawmakers earlier in September that the department was "well underway" in addressing the 24 recommendations made in the inspector general's report on the Phoenix operation and in cutting wait times nationwide for veterans. McDonald has said repeatedly that the VA relies on employees coming forward to expose mismanagement and wrongdoing.

"At VA, we take whistleblower complaints seriously and will not tolerate retaliation against those who raise issues which may enable VA to better serve Veterans," he said in the VA's statement on the settlements.

In her statement on the settlements, U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn N. Lerner praised the three whistle-blowers for bringing forward their concerns.

“Dr. Mitchell, Ms. Pedene, and Mr. Reese followed their consciences and reported wrongdoing, and their efforts have improved care and accountability at the VA,” Lerner said.

The Office of Special Counsel is currently investigating more than 125 complaints of whistle-blower retaliation against VA employees who have reported understaffing, improper scheduling practices and hazards to patient safety. The special counsel also has a further 89 whistle-blower disclosure cases from VA related to health and safety on its docket and has referred 51 of those to the VA to investigate.

Nonetheless, Lerner praised the VA's actions to address systemic problems and respond to whistle-blower allegations.

“I applaud the VA’s leadership for taking actions to quickly resolve these cases and concrete steps to change the VA’s culture," Lerner said. "VA leadership is sending a clear message: Whistle-blowing should be encouraged, not punished.”

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