Thank you Mr. Chairman.
This Committee has held many hearings over the years on problems with access to VA health care. At each of these hearings, problems were disclosed and the VA promised to improve. But little has changed.
VA is widely known to have a culture of denying problems and not listening to feedback-- be it from Congress, veterans or its own employees.
VA has had a reputation as being intolerant of whistleblowers. So far in this fiscal year, nearly half of the matters transmitted to agency heads by the Office of Special Counsel, seven out of 15, involve the VA.
According to the OSC, it currently has 67 active investigations into retaliation complaints from VA employees, and has received 25 new whistleblower retaliation cases from VA employees since June 1, 2014.
A recent New York Times article stated that within the VA there was a "culture of silence and intimidation."
Acting VA Secretary Gibson recently stated that he was "deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously."
Within VHA, the problem of intimidation and retaliation may be magnified by what some considered the "protective" culture of the medical profession.
It is often thought to be against the "code" to point out a colleague's mistakes. Or, where a nurse or attendant is told it is not "appropriate" to question a physician or surgeon.
The natural tendency is to close ranks to deny that problems exist, or mistakes were made.
So, after we listen to the testimony before us this evening-- from whistleblowers, the Office of Special Counsel, and the VA, will anything change? How do we fix this culture and encourage all VA employees to step forward to identify problems and work to address them? Changing a culture is not easy. It cannot be done legislatively, and it cannot be done by throwing additional resources at it. Talk is cheap and real solutions are hard to find.
It is clear to me that the VA, as it is structured today, is fundamentally incapable of making a real change in its culture. I note that Acting Secretary Gibson announced today that he was taking steps to restructure the Office of Medical Inspector by creating a "strong internal audit function which will ensure issues of care quality and patient safety remain at the forefront."
This is an improvement, but it raises additional questions regarding how this restructuring will better enable OMI to undertake investigations resulting from whistleblower complaints forwarded by the OSC, or how it will have the authority to ensure that remedial actions are taken by the appropriate components of the VA.
Time and again, as the June letter from OSC demonstrates, the VA found fault, but determined that these grave errors did not affect the health and safety of veterans. Anyone reading the specifics of any of these cases will find this "harmless error" conclusion, as stated by the OSC to be a "serious disservice to the veterans who received inadequate patient care for years[.]"
I agree with the OSC's June 23rd letter -- "This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans."
We all seem to have the same goals this evening -- we want all VA employees to feel comfortable raising problems and having them addressed without fear that raising their voices will mean the end of their careers.
The VA has stated that it wants to make fundamental changes in its culture so that workforce intimidation or retaliation is unacceptable. Talk is cheap. Real change is difficult.
I would propose that the very first order of business at the VA is to take accountability seriously. If any VA employee is shown to have intimidated or retaliated against another VA employee then that employee should be fired.
The VA should have a zero tolerance policy for whistleblower intimidation or retaliation. As I see it, effective leadership and real accountability is the only way to begin the process of institutional change. I hope tonight is the beginning of that change.
Thank you Mr. Chairman, and I yield back the balance of my time.