SAN ANTONIO — Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson warned VA administrators on Friday that intimidation or retaliation against anyone who calls attention to problems within the veterans' health system will not be tolerated.
Federal investigators are examining allegations that VA supervisors retaliated against 37 employees who filed "whistleblower" complaints. It included some who complained about improper scheduling practices at the heart of a growing scandal within the VA system.
At a news conference Friday after a visit to a San Antonio VA facility, Gibson said the department will follow laws that forbid whistleblower retaliation.
He said employees of any organization need to feel they can speak out and Gibson warned against anything that would create a climate that would stifle that source. "I think that is wrong. It is absolutely unacceptable." Gibson said.
"There have been questions raised about intimidation or even retaliation. There is a law that forbids that, and we'll follow the law," Gibson said.
He also expressed confidence that investigators will be able to ferret out the truth, regardless of any attempts to squelch potential whistleblowers.
"We have a pretty savvy IG (Inspector General). They are going to gather information from the bottom up," he said. "These guys didn't just fall off the turnip truck. These are professionals at their trade," he added.
The scandal has centered on long patient waits for care and falsified records covering up delays at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide.
After a visit to a Phoenix VA facility on Thursday, Gibson said an additional 18 veterans whose names were kept off an official electronic VA appointment list have died and that he would ask the inspector general to see if there is any indication those deaths were related to long wait times. If so, they would reach out to those veterans' families.
The 18 veterans who died were among 1,700 veterans identified in a report last week by the VA's inspector general as being "at risk of being lost or forgotten." The investigation also found broad and deep-seated problems with delays in patient care and manipulation of waiting lists throughout the sprawling VA health care system, which provides medical care to about 9 million veterans and family members.
Gibson said he does not know whether the 18 new deaths were related to wait times but said they were in addition to the 17 reported last month.
Also Thursday, senior senators reached agreement on the framework for a bipartisan bill making it easier for veterans to get health care outside VA hospitals and clinics.
The bill announced Thursday by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would allow veterans who wait 30 days or more for VA appointments or who live at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic to use private doctors enrolled as providers for Medicare, military TRICARE or other government health care programs.
It also would let the VA immediately fire as many as 450 senior regional executives and hospital administrators for poor performance. The bill resembles a measure passed last month by the House but includes a 28-day appeal process omitted by the House legislation.