VA employee-whistleblower retaliation under the congressional microscope
The findings in a GAO study of whistleblower reprisal against employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs was the subject of testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee in Nov. 2023.
Keeping whistleblower reprisals against employees under control has been problematic at the huge U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), recently attracting the scrutiny of members of Congress and the media.
The VA provides benefits to military veterans and their families, primarily medical care but also financial and other benefits. VA whistleblowers are VA employees who expose or report misconduct, violations of law, abuse of authority, dangerous conditions and similar problematic actions within the agency. When a VA whistleblower experiences retaliatory treatment in their job like discipline or termination for bringing problems to light, a handful of routes exist for them to pursue justice and remediation.
Military.com describes several high-profile whistleblower-retaliation cases involving mostly federal employees working in its health care system who exposed a variety of medical scandals. Not only is whistleblower reprisal an issue at the VA, but also spotty delivery and lax enforcement of officially recommended legal remedies for individual whistleblowers, according to the article.
New government study of VA whistleblower retaliation
On Nov. 2, 2023, in response to congressional request, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published its study of VA whistleblower retaliation claims. The findings tell the recent story of whistleblower retaliation at the VA.
Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection
The OAWP is an office within the VA where whistleblowers can file their cases of retaliation, but some question its effectiveness and whether it has enough independence from the workings of the agency to adjudicate without bias.
The GAO study found the number of whistleblower retaliation claims filed at OAWP increased since FY 2020.
Office of Special Counsel
The OSC is a federal agency that investigates and enforces the Whistleblower Protection Act (and other statutes) on behalf of federal employees, including those at VA, facing reprisals at work for bringing internal fraudulent, illegal or immoral activities to light. The study reports that while the numbers of VA whistleblower claims have decreased, more of those claims are receiving favorable outcomes for whistleblowers.
The report says that from FY 2018 to FY 2022, almost 69% of OSC claims from VA workers included whistleblower retaliation allegations.
The study explains that VA whistleblower retaliations claims can be resolved through settlements with the VA, albeit a small number resolve this way. The report explains that according to VA OGC officials, a settlement can happen at any stage of the case. Three stages of settlement negotiation between VA and a claimant are initiation, negotiation and monitoring.
Settlement remedies to whistleblowers alleging retaliation may include money damages, lost wages (such as if the employee was terminated or demoted) and future wage corrections.
The report contains key details for those VA whistleblowers concerned about retaliation. These employees should speak with an experienced whistleblower lawyer to understand their various options for pursuing legal remedies, including those examined in the study and elsewhere.