A Culture of Deception at the VA?

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Our January 15 cover story, "Tell No One," delved into an evolving sexual harassment quagmire at an Aurora outpatient clinic operated by the Department of Veteran Affairs; several female health care workers who complained of inappropriate conduct by a male nurse say they've suffered retaliation from administrators, including punitive job assignments and "interrogations" in which they've been pressured to change their stories. Months after the alleged perp resigned, the VA's investigation of the matter drags on -- and seems to be directed at silencing the victims.

But that clinic is hardly the only problem spot amid the VA's sprawling, $150-billion empire of hospitals, service centers, outreach programs and other operations mandated to provide health care and other benefits to our nation's military veterans. Call it one symptom of a much larger mess.

See also: Women Claim Sexual Harassment, Retaliation and Cover-up at the Colorado VA

As noted in my article, similar claims about harassment and retaliation recently surfaced in a lawsuit filed by an employee of a VA benefits office in Lakewood. On a much graver level, there's the ongoing probe into the inability to provide timely access to health care for thousands of veterans, a national scandal that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki called "systemic" when he resigned last spring. And, of course, the uproar over the runaway costs and busted budget of the billion-dollar hospital the VA is building in Aurora, now the subject of yet another internal investigation as well as congressional outrage.

Fresh stories of mismanagement and dysfunction within the VA seem to be rolling out on a regular basis. A story in today's Washington Examiner reveals that VA procurement officers routinely altered dates on documents to hide the fact that they were behind schedule -- not unlike the cooking of the books at VA hospitals that made it look like patients were getting medical help rather than waiting for months to see someone.

How much of what goes on inside the VA is simple ineptitude, as opposed to outright dissembling and covering up? In a bureaucracy so vast and powerful, it can be difficult to separate the blind from the venal; Shinseki's resignation was prompted in part by the degree to which he couldn't rely on his own subordinates for accurate information about the patient care crisis.

My own encounters with VA-speak have left me trying to decipher, like arcane hieroglyphics, the distinctions between what's on paper and what happens in practice. A spokesman for the local operation told me our article was one-sided and biased -- because, among other sins, it didn't explain that the VA's refusal to allow the harassment complainants to have their lawyer present during questioning wasn't an effort to intimidate them; rather, it was a matter of "law" that only union officials are allowed to represent employees in employment issues. But the women's attorney, Patricia Bangert, cites passages in statute and the VA's own handbook that specifically allow for an attorney to be present in any "disciplinary action," as well as in certain grievance and appeal actions -- and one could certainly argue that the interviews the women describe are the first step in a disciplinary action. And other sources have told me that an attorney can be designated in lieu of the union rep in certain situations.

A spokesperson for the VA's Office of Inspector General also flatly declared that the OIG doesn't investigate complaints of employee harassment or retaliation. So why does the OIG website claim that it "investigates crimes committed against programs and operations of VA by employees and non-employees," including "assaults involving VA employees and patients," as well as reprisals against whistleblowers? Two contract employees in Aurora lost their jobs as a result of reporting the harassment, and the site urges that "employees of VA contractors or grantees who believe they are being reprised against for making protected disclosures should contact the VA OIG Hotline."

Bangert did contact the OIG. And got a form letter in response. She doesn't expect to hear much more from the VA's internal watchdog -- not even if she waits in line for the next few months.

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