OSC investigating dozens of claims of whistleblower retaliation at VA

Thursday - 6/5/2014, 11:32am EDT

The Office of Special Counsel is investigating more than three dozen claims of whistleblower retaliation at the scandal-rocked Veterans Affairs Department.

The 37 cases OSC is investigating span VA facilities in 19 states. They include VA employees who say they've been retaliated against for disclosing a range of misconduct, including improper scheduling practices, the misuse of agency funds and inappropriately restraining patients, according to an OSC press release.

The VA has been mired in controversy over the past few months, over reports veterans faced extensive delays in seeing doctors and VA employees falsified records to hide the long wait times. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 30 after publicly apologizing for the problems with VA health care.

In one of the cases OSC is investigating, a VA employee faced a 30-day unpaid suspension for disclosing that VA staff were inappropriately placing patients in restraints in violation of VA rules, according to OSC's statement. The proposed suspension was the first disciplinary action taken against the employee in more than 20 years working at the agency.

Another VA employee faced a seven-day suspension for reporting concerns to the agency inspector general about improper scheduling and "coding procedures." According to the employee's complaint, the employee's performance evaluation was also lowered.

At another VA facility, an employee who reported the misuse of patient-care funds was reassigned out of a position and then threatened with demotion.

OSC blocks disciplinary action

In each of those three cases, OSC has blocked the VA from taking disciplinary action against the employee, as it completes its investigations.

"OSC appreciates the VA's cooperation in providing interim relief to these employees," Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement. "Receiving candid information about harmful practices from employees will be critical to the VA's efforts to identify problems and find solutions. However, employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation."

Last year, OSC obtained corrective actions for 14 whistleblowers who were facing reprisals from the VA.

The Whistleblower Protection and Enhancement Act, which went into effect in 2012, expanded the authority of the OSC to review employees' claims of agency wrongdoing and also made it easier to discipline agency officials who retaliate against whistleblowers.

OSC has seen its caseload expand significantly under the new law. But despite the recent changes to the law, many federal-employee whistleblowers say they still have reservations about disclosing wrongdoing for fear of retaliation.

Just 14 percent of respondents to an exclusive Federal News Radio survey of federal employees, retirees and contractors agreed that there are enough protections in place governmentwide for whistleblowers to feel safe to report waste, fraud and abuse.

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