VA chief pledges end to whistleblower retaliation

PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 5: New Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson holds a press conference at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center June 5, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. Gibson was previously the Deputy Secretary at Veterans Affairs and the President and CEO of the USO. (Photo by Laura Segall/Getty Images)
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ST. LOUIS - The acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs vowed Tuesday to crack down on whistleblower retaliation after a private government watchdog released a critical report on the agency's treatment of employees who brought internal problems to light.

During a speech to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in St. Louis, Sloan Gibson pledged that the agency would do more to listen to workers who report problems. The former bank executive took over the VA in late May following the resignation of Eric Shinseki amid an uproar over treatment delays and falsified records at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide, including reports that dozens died awaiting treatment.

"I learned in the private sector, the most important source of information, ideas for innovation and continuous improvement, are your employees," Gibson said. "If we're working to deliver better outcomes for veterans, the last thing we want to do is to create an environment where people are afraid to raise their hand. We're not going to tolerate that behavior."

On Monday, the Project for Government Oversight said it received complaints from nearly 800 current and former VA workers and veterans about possible wrongdoing. The VA's acting inspector general has confirmed investigations at 87 VA medical facilities nationwide.

"We have a bureaucracy that front-line staff have simply giving up trying to fight," said Gibson, a former West Point cadet and Army infantry officer was appointed deputy VA secretary four months before his elevation to the top spot. "In addition, we've created an environment where opinions of the rank-and-file, those that are doing the hard day-to-day work of caring for our veterans, are not only not listened to, they're not tolerated."

Gibson also said he has frozen hiring at VA central offices and suspended senior performance awards for the year. He was scheduled to visit the John Cochran VA Hospital later Tuesday and meet with reporters afterward. The trip to St. Louis - his 13th visit to VA facilities in recent weeks - comes on the same day as his longtime friend Robert McDonald appears at a Senate Veteran Affairs Committee hearing in Washington on his nomination to become VA secretary.

Gibson told his audience Tuesday morning that nearly 600,000 veterans have received referrals to private health care in the past two months, a substantial increase over the referral rate from one year ago. He described development of a "comprehensive, state-of-the-art" computer scheduling system to replace the "antiquated and cumbersome system" now in place. And he spoke forcefully of the agency's intentions to listen to, not muzzle, its workers.

Vietnam veteran Gail Wilson, 69, of Oxford, Mississippi, said he was encouraged by Gibson's comments but won't be convinced until he sees a tangible difference. The local VFW organizer said that last week he had a doctor's appointment at a VA medical center in Memphis, Tennessee, canceled without notice, the second recent time that's happened.

"There are going to be a lot of skeptics," he said. "We've been lied to for so long at this point."

About 12,000 people are in St. Louis for the national convention, where on Monday Vice President Joe Biden delivered his own promises on behalf of the Obama administration to fix a wounded VA health system, saying, "We will not rest until it gets fixed."

In testimony in front of the Senate Veterans' Affairs committee recently, Gibson said the VA has been working with the Office of Management and Budget to form a funding request. He stated that although the request will seem large, in reality it will be only a "moderate percentage increase" in the agency's annual budget.

The latest analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates a Senate-passed bill would cost $35 billion through 2016 to build new clinics, hire doctors and make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care. The CBO put the price tag of a similar measure passed by the House at $44 billion.