VA may have retaliated against whistleblowers, watchdog says

This May 19, 2014 photo shows a a sign in front of the Veterans Affairs building in Washington, D.C. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO -- Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson is warning VA administrators that he won't tolerate intimidation or retaliation against anyone who calls attention to problems within the veterans' health system.

Federal investigators are examining allegations that VA supervisors retaliated against 37 employees who filed "whistleblower" complaints. It included some who complained about improper scheduling practices at the heart of a growing scandal within the VA system.

The independent Office of Special Counsel says it has blocked disciplinary actions against three VA employees who reported wrongdoing, including one who was suspended for seven days after complaining to the VA's inspector general about improper scheduling.

The agency also blocked a 30-day suspension without pay for another VA employee who reported inappropriate use of patient restraints and blocked demotion of a third employee who reported mishandling of patient care funds, a spokesman said Friday.

Gibson spoke Friday at a news conference in San Antonio after visiting a VA facility there. During his remarks, he said the VA would follow laws that forbid whistleblower retaliation.

The report by the special counsel's office comes amid a furor over allegations that patients have waited three months or more for appointments as VA officials falsified records to cover up delays at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide.

Gibson on Friday reiterated that the "breach of integrity" on display in the scandal is "absolutely unacceptable," and said the VA is committed to reviving the trust in the agency "one at a time."

He noted that the department will release the detailed results of the nationwide audit of VA facilities on Monday, and said that report would include a detailed look at the system down to each individual medical center. "It's that kind of transparency...that is necessary in the circumstance that we're in right now," he said.

He also confirmed that the department had reached out to all of the roughly 1,700 veterans at a Phoenix VA facility who were not found on any waiting list whatsoever, leaving them at risk of being lost or forgotten in the scheduling process. "Many hundreds" of those veterans, he said, are "already scheduled for appointments and for care."

"The bottom line is we're going to get veterans off the wait list," he said.

During an appearance Thursday at the Phoenix facility, Gibson said that 18 Phoenix-area veterans whose names were kept off an official VA appointment list have died.

Gibson said he does not know whether the 18 new deaths were related to long waiting times for appointments but said they were in addition to the 17 reported last month by the VA's inspector general. The announcement of the deaths came as senior senators reached agreement Thursday on the framework for a bipartisan bill making it easier for veterans to get health care outside VA hospitals and clinics.

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