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Doctor from Phoenix VA testifies at House hearing on whistleblowers

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WASHINGTON – Dr. Katherine Mitchell knew she was “shooting my career in the foot” when she raised concerns about the quality of care that the Department of Veterans Affairs was providing patients at its Phoenix hospital.

She doesn’t regret it, she said Tuesday, because she could not stand to see another veteran die.

Mitchell was one of four VA whistleblowers who testified Tuesday to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on how they tried to point out problems at the troubled agency and how they faced retaliation from their supervisors as a result.

“Retaliation is alive and well, especially within the VA administration,” said Dr. Christian Head, associate director of legal and quality assurance at the Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care System. “There exists a cancer within the organization.”

Head joined Mitchell, VA program specialist Scott Davis and Dr. Jose Mathews, the former chief of psychiatry for the VA in St. Louis, to provide three hours of stories on dysfunction and retribution in the agency’s health care system.

Problems at the VA were first reported in the Phoenix facilities, including reports that delays in care may have been involved in the deaths of some patients. Investigators found that patients faced extraordinary delays in getting care, if they ever got it, and that agency officials kept doctored sets of records to make their response times appear better than they actually were, among other allegations.

A subsequent national audit of all VA health facilities found systemic problems similar to those in Phoenix, even as agency administrators were receiving thousands of dollars in bonuses every year. The problems led to the resignation of then-Secretary Eric Shinseki in late May.

Among the problems was a complaint by whistleblowers that their complaints were ignored or met with punitive action by VA supervisors.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the panel was “fortunate” to hear from the four whistleblowers who stepped forward to testify Tuesday. He urged his staff and the members of the committee to help improve whistleblower protections, also called on the department to stop silencing complaints and whistleblowers.

The panelists said that when they tried to raise issues about the quality of care, the retaliation ranged from being placed on administrative leave or being removed from their positions, to being charged with fraud and having their credentials smeared.

In her written testimony, Mitchell said she filed complaints about understaffing and a lack of training and resources in the emergency department in Phoenix. Mitchell said she was told by supervisors – who she said did not investigate her claims – that “the only problem with the ER was my lack of communication skills.”

She said administrators told her to stop filing complaints with the Patient Safety Office and forced her to work unlimited unscheduled shifts without compensation. In 2012, she was involuntarily transferred to the Iraq and Afghanistan Post-Deployment Center in Phoenix, where she works as the medical director today.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, commended the panelists, especially Mitchell, for stepping forward.

“Without whistleblowers we wouldn’t have been able to identify these problems,” she said.

Kirkpatrick said she plans to introduce legislation this week that would provide protection for whistleblowers, by letting employees file retaliation complaints directly with the VA secretary instead of with the supervisors who are actively retaliating against them.

But some at the hearing questioned whether the VA could police itself.

Davis, the VA program specialist on the whistleblower panel, said any body that is supposed to investigate the VA cannot be part of the agency, and suggested investigations be carried out by the Government Accountability Office instead.

For Mitchell, the retaliation had a personal impact, but she said it also had bigger implications – she believes that patient care was threatened because the VA failed to look into her complaints. That’s why she doesn’t regret coming forward.

Now, she said, she will wait to see if her efforts were made in vain.

“I’ve given all I can,” Mitchell said. “Now I’ll wait and see if I told my story to the right people.”