The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has launched a comprehensive review of the VA Loma Linda Health Care System amid a congressional investigation into employee complaints alleging widespread retaliation and harassment from supervisors for reporting misconduct.
Since March 2019, the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection has received 35 retaliation allegations from VA Loma Linda whistleblowers, the OAWP’s investigation division director, Eric Calhoun, told the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight during a Nov. 2 hearing.
Of those, 11 prompted investigations and five resulted in recommendations for disciplinary action to VA Loma Linda management, Calhoun said.
One disciplinary recommendation from OAWP was fully implemented by management while three weren’t because the employee accused of misconduct had already resigned from the VA. VA Loma Linda officials took no action to enforce the remaining recommendation.
Across-the-board, about 3% of OAWP’s investigations result in discipline, Calhoun said. OAWP is responsible for oversight while management at VA facilities is given discretion in implementing punishment recommendations.
OAWP’s disciplinary statistics are alarming, said Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, who is investigating whistleblower complaints at VA Loma Linda along with Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Mike Bost, R-Illinois.
“If only three percent of the time their information results in … disciplinary action being taken … that’s not very reassuring to them (whistleblowers),” he told Calhoun, suggesting it could have a chilling effect on their willingness to come forward with complaints.
OAWP officials will visit VA Loma Linda in December for a “climate review” examining whether the health care system promotes an environment in which whistleblowers feel safe reporting concerns without fear of retaliation, said OAWP Assistant Secretary Bruce Gipe.
OAWP received 577 whistleblower retaliation cases in fiscal year 2020 and 736 in fiscal year 2023, according to a Government Accounting Office report published earlier this month. The average length for cases from 2018 through 2022 was 190 days.
Nearly 70% of VA whistleblowers face workplace retaliation such as demotion, reassignment, or termination, according to the GAO. In some instances, whistleblowers enter into a settlement agreement with the VA to resolve the dispute.
Since April, dozens of whistleblowers have contacted the Southern California News Group with allegations of misconduct by VA Loma Linda officials, including that of a grounds supervisor who was promoted after federal investigators repeatedly recommended that he be fired for employee harassment and intimidation.
The mother of former VA Loma Linda Health Care System irrigation technician Ryan Sperry, who died by suicide in 2022 after purportedly enduring more than three years of harassment and retaliation from the grounds supervisor, has filed a $5 million personal injury claim against the government.
In another matter, a confidential 2022 federal report provided to SCNG alleges VA Loma Linda officials mismanaged more than $1 million in patient transportation funding over a three-year period by colluding with ambulance companies through informal “handshake” agreements and unauthorized contracts.
Additionally, several advocacy organizations allege VA Loma Linda is violating the civil liberties of some veterans seeking voluntary mental health evaluations by placing them on involuntary psychiatric holds as a precondition of their transportation to a hospital or treatment facility.
Earlier this month, VA Loma Linda Medical Director Karandeep Sraon, whom many whistleblowers say has done little to address what they perceive as a toxic work environment, sent an email to staff stating he requested the OAWP climate review “to create an atmosphere that promotes open communication, respect and collaboration.”
“The purpose of this review is not to investigate any alleged wrongdoing or individual, nor is it to find fault, but rather to provide us with valuable insights and recommendations on how we can foster an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting concerns without fear of intimidation or retaliation,” Sraon said in the email. “Together, we can build a culture that promotes transparency, accountability and inclusivity.”
Sraon also encouraged employees to participate in a voluntary and anonymous OAWP online survey aimed at improving whistleblower reporting.
The 17-question survey obtained by SCNG asks employees to rank on a scale of 1 to 5 whether they feel free from retaliation for reporting someone to VA Loma Linda supervisors and VA oversight entities such as OAWP, the Office of Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel.
Several VA Loma Linda whistleblowers, who asked not to be identified because they fear retribution, told SCNG they are suspicious of the survey’s purpose, fearing the results could be used to identify and target them for further retaliation.
“Almost everybody thinks there is something behind the survey and that they (VA Loma Linda management) are using it to try and find out who is talking,” one worker said.
Another employee suggested it’s doubtful the survey results will improve working conditions. “It’s kind of laughable,” the worker said. “Why should we think that it will change anything?”
Source: Orange County Register