Apr 13, 5:28 PM EDT

Investigator: VA whistleblower cases remain 'overwhelming'



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Investigator: VA whistleblower cases remain 'overwhelming'

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of whistleblower cases reported at the Department of Veterans Affairs remains "overwhelming," a year after a scandal broke over chronic delays for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records covering up the delays, a top federal investigator said Monday.

Carolyn Lerner, head of the independent Office of Special Counsel said complaints of waste, fraud and abuse - as well as threats to the health and safety of veterans - continue to pour in, even after Congress gave the department an extra $16 billion last year to shorten waits for care and overhaul the agency.

So many complaints have been filed, Lerner said, that VA cases represent 40 percent of all incoming cases investigated by her agency, which has jurisdiction over the entire federal government.

The counsel's office is examining about 110 pending claims of retaliation against whistleblowers who filed complaints involving patient health and safety, scheduling and understaffing, Lerner said. The pending claims involve VA facilities in 38 states and the District of Columbia.

Since last year, the special counsel's office has secured either full or partial relief for 45 VA employees who have filed whistleblower retaliation complaints, Lerner said, including a landmark settlement for three employees who suffered retaliation after filing whistleblower complaints at the troubled Phoenix VA hospital, the epicenter of the wait time scandal.

The numbers point to an ongoing problem, but also could be viewed as part of a larger effort to restore accountability at the VA, Lerner told a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee.

"The current, elevated numbers of VA whistleblower cases do not necessarily mean there is more retaliation than before the scheduling and wait list problems came to light, or that there are more threats to patient health and safety," she said. "Instead, these numbers may indicate greater awareness of whistleblower rights and greater employee confidence in the systems designed to protect them."

Meghan Flanz, director of the VA's newly created Office of Accountability Review, said VA officials were encouraged that employees appeared comfortable reporting problems, as indicated by the increase in complaints.

"I don't know if they feel comfortable. I think they are willing to take a risk," responded Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

Flanz said the VA is committed to protecting whistleblowers and ensuring fair treatment for those who bring problems to light, noting that her office was created as part of reforms initiated by VA Secretary Robert McDonald in response to the wait-time scandal.

An investigation by The Associated Press revealed that the number of patients facing long waits has not declined a year after Americans recoiled at revelations that sick veterans were getting sicker while languishing on waiting lists.

Nearly 894,000 medical appointments completed at VA medical facilities from Aug. 1 to Feb. 28 failed to meet the VA's timeliness goal, which calls for patients to be seen within 30 days, the AP found. Nearly 232,000 of those appointments involved a delay of longer than 60 days.

Delays were not spread evenly throughout the VA's vast network of hospitals and clinics, the AP found. Many were clustered at VA facilities in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has easily outpaced the VA's sluggish planning process.

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