May 15, 2014
By Neal Tepel
Washington, DC – The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to end the culture of fear that has plagued the agency and negatively impacted veterans' care. As recent headlines suggest, some management officials have been 'gaming the system' to artificially inflate performance statistics in their medical centers.
What is not so recent is the widespread cover-up culture that pervades the VA. Front-line employees have lived in fear of blowing the whistle due to an established history of retaliation. They do not feel safe to report mismanagement.
"These headlines aren't revealing anything that the VA didn't already know," said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. "Our members have paid a heavy price for voicing concerns, submitting letters, raising issues in labor management meetings, and testifying before Congress on wait time issues and veterans' access to care. When they have sounded the alarm our members faced retaliation and intimidation. No one should have to choose between keeping their job and speaking out about threats to patient care. It is time for the VA to take swift action to end this culture of fear and cover-ups."
Kathi Dahl is the AFGE Local President at the Pittsburgh VA where a recent outbreak of Legionnaires' disease caused the death of five veterans and infection of dozens more. The facility had very high readings for well over a year before they were disclosed to Ms. Dahl and the staff. In February 2013 she was summoned by the House VA Oversight Committee as a witness, but was informed by a VA manager that she could "call in sick" instead of testifying. Despite management intimidation she testified on the record to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs regarding the outbreak and subsequent cover-up.
In 2011, Dr. Michelle Washington, a union activist with AFGE VA Local 342, testified before the Senate on issues of inadequate staffing, patient access to specialized care and prolonged wait times for appointments. Her testimony also addressed concerns of mismanagement in terms of appointment data manipulation. Following her testimony, Dr. Washington faced retaliatory actions at her facility where some of her duties as a psychologist were removed and her performance evaluation was negatively impacted. Dr. Maryann Hooker, also an AFGE activist, became the subject of an unwarranted investigation for testifying on proposed budget cuts and "deskilling" of the workforce in 2011. She was ultimately cleared after intervention of the VA's Office of Inspector General. Similarly, Veterans Benefits Administration employees testifying on numbers-gaming at the VBA suffered retaliation for speaking up.
"We hope the agency will take a serious look at how facility directors and managers are carrying out the mission of the VA," added AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee. "As the agency carries out its probe, we caution it not to target front line workers carrying out their duties as assigned, but the managers trying to change the rules and cheat veterans out of the care they deserve. VA should not be investigating itself under these circumstances."
"The employees caring for our nation's heroes work hard each day to carry out the mission of the agency, to provide our vets with world-class care," said Cox. "They shouldn't feel afraid to speak up against managers who are more concerned with securing bonuses than providing their patients with timely access to care for critical medical conditions. It's time for the VA to rebalance its resources, cut the excess layers of middle management, and shift the savings toward the front lines of patient care where it belongs. The only way to heal what is wrong with the VA is to invest in what is right with the VA: its doctors, nurses, clinicians, and other dedicated health care personnel."
Despite management issues, the Veterans Health Administration remains the largest, most cost-efficient health delivery system in the nation. Serving a population of more than 8 million veterans with locations across all 50 states, the system provides inpatient care to 650,000 veterans and outpatient care to another 75 million patients each year.