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VA Whistleblower Gets Protection, Officials Ignore Rules

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 "The VA has a systemic problem," Representative Mike Coffman said yesterday at a congressional hearing probing government waste. He was, of course, referring to the disastrous efforts by the Department of Veteran Affairs to build a new hospital in Aurora, a project that's now more than a billion dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

The Aurora hospital debacle has been seized upon by the agency's critics as a stunning testament to bureaucratic arrogance and ineptitude — but it's hardly the only white elephant in the room.  Given an array of other staggeringly expensive, runaway VA building projects from Orlando to Las Vegas, Coffman wants to deprive  VA officials of their customary bonuses to help pay for cost overruns and take away construction authority from the agency. The VA, in his view, isn't "qualified to build a lemonade stand, let alone a multi-million-dollar hospital facility."

Yet the follies at the VA extend far beyond its construction woes. Almost lost in the mounting outcry over one of the most expensive hospitals in the world is a gaggle of scandals, internal investigations and befuddled reprimands issuing from what may well be the federal government's most dysfunctional department (current annual budget: $150 billion). And several of the latest developments have roots in Colorado.

Our January 15 cover story "Tell No One"  reported on an evolving sexual harassment quagmire at an Aurora outpatient clinic operated by the VA. Several female health care workers who complained of inappropriate conduct by a male nurse told Westword 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 was still dragging on — and seemed to be directed at silencing the victims. 

Now an update on that case comes from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency charged with investigating various forms of government misconduct, including whistleblower retaliation claims. The OSC has intervened on behalf of one of the nurses mentioned in our article, Debora Casados, who had reported the harassment to her superiors and then was abruptly removed from her nursing duties and assigned to office tasks. According to a statement released by the OSC last week, "In January 2015, human resources moved Ms. Casados to a windowless basement room to scan documents. In February, she was denied leave to care for her terminally ill mother. On April 3, 2015, the VA agreed to OSC's request for an informal stay on behalf of Ms. Casados, returning her to nursing duties at another clinic while OSC investigates her whistleblower reprisal claims to determine if additional corrective action and disciplinary action are appropriate."

Two other recent reports from the VA's own Office of Inspector General take issue with several highly dubious executive decisions at the Veteran Health Administration's Chief Business Office and at a CBO field office in Denver that oversees what's known as "Purchased Care," or health care services obtained for veterans from non-VA providers. The first report concludes that the CBO violated federal appropriations law by taking $92.5 million in funds designated for medical support and compliance — funds "intended only for necessary expenses in the administration of medical, hospital, nursing home, domiciliary, construction, supply, and research activities" — and using the money to finance the development of a claims processing system. (Not unlike the VA's current proposal to shift funds earmarked for reform measures to pay for the Aurora hospital; but in this case, they didn't ask, they just did it.) The deputy chief business officer responsible for that decision, Patricia Gheen, retired from the VA in 2012 — after, the report notes, another OIG investigation had found that she "engaged in improper contracting activities and failed to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with two VA contractors."

And another recently released report takes aim at Gheen's successor as deputy chief business officer for purchased care in Denver, Cynthia Kindred, for similar cozy relationships with contractors; Kindred apparently created a special position and circumvented the usual hiring hurdles to bring back a former VA employee who'd gone on to work as a contractor. Kindred's promotion decisions evidently outraged others who worked for her and decided to do some "investigating" of their own — including one employee who made an offer to Kindred to "not report her suspected wrongdoing in exchange for her agreement to mentor him for his personal advancement." Kindred retired last year and didn't respond to the OIG investigators on the advice of her attorney. 

Busy place, that Denver office for purchased care. But how much of what's going on there is of any earthly use to veterans in need of health care and other services?  

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