The Office of Special Counsel today honored three physicians for coming forward with stories of wrongdoing at the Veterans Affairs Department. Their revelations outraged the nation and helped catapult the agency into reform.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell spent years trying to alert VA officials to the mistreatment of patients at the Phoenix VA Medical Center. Drs. Phyllis Hollenbeck and Charles Sherwood also reported chronic understaffing, corruption and fraud at the center in Jackson, Mississippi.
Before receiving their Public Servant of the Year awards, each told stories of outrage and frustration, scattered with doses of faith and black humor. With VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) in the audience at the swanky Loews Madison Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., the ceremony was a far cry from the marginalization they said they once felt.
“When I began this journey, I was feeling totally alone and abandoned and I never thought that anyone would ever listen to me. I certainly hoped they would, but I didn’t count on it because no one had listened to me for years,” Mitchell said. Sherwood also noted the irony. While he was honored to accept the award, joking that the Office of Personnel Management could no longer mark his personnel file as “a member of the lunatic fringe,” he still felt sad about the circumstances that had made him act.
“Before Secretary [Bob] McDonald and [Deputy Secretary Sloan] Gibson took the helm at the VA, the excuse at the agency was that systems and processes failed. You didn’t hear about individuals failing,” he said. “The truth was the other way around. Individuals abandoned those processes and systems that were put in place to protect patients and protect people. And they did it in the service of themselves.”
He credited the Office of the Special Counsel and Miller’s staff for responding to his reports after more than 15 years of what he called “willful blindness” by the VA and its office of inspector general to improper practices in the Jackson center’s radiology lab.
“This rehabilitation of my faith in government is due almost exclusively to the two of you,” he told Miller and Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner.
Hollenbeck, who considers Sherwood a role model for speaking out first at the Jackson facility, said she similarly never thought she would be in a situation that required her to take action.
“I wasn’t looking for a fight. It came to me,” she said. “I was asked to violate laws. I knew I had to speak up or give up.”
The VA is encouraging whistleblowers to come forward, Gibson said. It has started new initiatives, including an “idea house,” which is meant as a forum in which employees can suggest ways that the department can improve. About 22,000 VA employees have already participated, he said.
“It’s imperative in any health care organization that front-line staff continuously identify opportunities to improve the quality of care and standards of patient safety,” he said.
The transformation is just now beginning, and it’s not clear what the VA will look like once it’s through, he said.
“We announced the vision, but it’s really our employees who are helping to define and shape that transformation,” he said.
Congress will continue its oversight of the department, Miller promised. He said he had already had talks with his counterparts in the Senate about possible legislation to introduce next year.
While applauding those steps, the three award-winners said the VA has a long way to go. Following a settlement with the department, Mitchell has left the Phoenix center for a new job with the Veterans Integrated Health Network, an oversight body for VA centers in the Southwest.
She sees signs of hope, but hesitated to say the department is making sustainable progress.
“I’m optimistic in the long-haul there will be significant positive changes. In the short-term, I remain impatient, because I’d like to see more done to protect whistleblowers and to restore whistleblowers,” she said, adding that some have been subjected to retaliation.
Too many employees are still afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up, she said
“The VA has admitted there’s at least 1,000 people who have acted unethically or inappropriately. The only way to make change is to hold those people accountable,” she said. “Until that happens, no one is going to consider the VA as being serious in addressing the anti-whistleblower culture that had been so prominent before last summer.”
In Mississippi, Hollenbeck continues to work at the Jackson center, although she is “on the feces roster,” she joked, adding that some executives would like her to depart. She has no intention of doing so. She wears an antique gold whistle around her neck, a gift from her husband. Sometimes it jingles when she fiddles with it in meetings.
“It makes my friends smile and my enemies nervous,” she said.