Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson speaks June 18 in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)
Even when acknowledging serious mistakes, Veterans Affairs officials routinely downplay the severity of errors and the harm caused to veterans, according to a new investigation by the Office of Special Counsel released Monday.
Officials there said the consistent “harmless error” defense often defies logic and hides “the severity of systemic and longstanding problems.” They’re asking for the creation of a new high-level post to better respond to outside criticism of the agency, to ensure problems are being addressed.
In response, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced a new review of the department’s Office of Medical Inspector, including a closer look at whether past special counsel recommendations have been implemented.
“I am deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously,” he said in a statement.
Last week, Gibson sent a departmentwide memo condemning retaliation against whistleblowers and encouraging VA employees to report any wrongdoing or waste.
In a letter to the White House on Monday, OSC officials praised that message, but said the department has a long way to go before it adequately responds to those whistleblower reports.
The office has 50 pending disclosure cases alleging threats to VA patient health and safety, and another 60 cases of alleged retaliation against whistleblowers in the department.
In one case, VA medical inspectors acknowledged that 3,000 veterans at a Colorado VA facility could not reschedule canceled appointments but found “no danger to public health and safety” as a result.
OSC investigators said they found similar problems in Alabama, where a VA pulmonologist improperly recorded information for 1,200 patients. VA medical inspectors said they could not substantiate whether those mistakes endangered patient health.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called the findings infuriating.
“In the fantasy land inhabited by VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector, serious patient safety issues apparently have no impact on patient safety,” he said in a statement. “It’s impossible to solve problems by whitewashing them or denying they exist.”
OSC officials said problems at VA facilities now make up about one-fourth of all the government cases they are investigating.