The Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. (Getty Images)
The Veterans Affairs Department’s second-ranking health official offered a blunt, harsh assessment of his department to Congress on Tuesday night: “We failed in the trust America placed in us.”
The comment, the latest in a long line of mea culpas from departmental leaders over the past two months, came as the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee probed into allegations of yet another public embarrassment for VA, this time over the treatment of whistleblowers who have face retaliation for trying to fix hospital problems.
Dr. James Tuchschmidt, VA’s acting principal deputy undersecretary for health, said he was “disheartened,” “disillusioned” and “sickened” by a steady stream of reports that employees who pointed out fraud and abuse have faced more punishment from superiors than the wrongdoers they were reporting.
He promised that changes are coming — but acknowledged that winning back the trust of veterans will be difficult given the failures of the past.
That’s been a common theme among VA officials testifying before Congress in recent weeks, many of whom find themselves in higher leadership roles after the departure of senior officials.
Tuchschmidt took over his provisional role a few weeks ago when his predecessor, Dr. Robert Jesse, was promoted to temporarily take over the top VA health job from Dr. Robert Petzel, who was forced to resign in the wake of the ongoing care delay scandal.
Jesse has since retired as well, and Dr. Carolyn Clancy is now filling that role while the search for a permanent replacement goes on.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson — who assumed that role June 1 after the resignation of Eric Shinseki — has publicly promised to correct the cultural problems within VA, including providing not just protection but also encouragement for department whistleblowers.
But lawmakers listening to Tuchschmidt’s apologies on Tuesday said they doubt even sincere internal efforts at reform will be enough to restore VA’s operational effectiveness and reputation. The concerns were further exacerbated by a steady stream of reports from whistleblowers and the Office of the Special Counsel damning what it said is a continuing inclination by supervisors to cover up problems.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a medical director at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, told lawmakers her complaints about inexperienced and insufficient staff at clinic waiting rooms were met first with silence, then threats, then a suspension for “improper conduct” when she went outside the department for solutions.
Dr. Jose Mathews, former chief of psychiatry at the St. Louis VA Health Care System, said he was demoted and marginalized for efforts to increase mental health care appointments and for raising questions about avoidable patient deaths at his hospital.
Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said her office is investigating 67 claims from VA employees about whistleblower retaliation, a case file that has steadily grown over the last two months.
She said she is encouraged by Gibson’s comments and recent actions from VA leaders to fix the retaliation problem — a few hours before the hearing, VA announced a restructuring of its Office of Medical Investigation in an effort to ensure reports of wrongdoing are taken more seriously — but said significant improvements need to happen quickly.
Lawmakers on the committee sounded less angry and more resigned than in recent oversight hearings, lamenting the whistleblower problem as yet another discouraging mark on VA’s reputation.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., praised recent reform efforts but added: “I don’t believe with any fiber of my being you’re going to get this right.”
Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called gaming the rules for personal gain “a widespread cancer within the VA” and said he sees a lack of cultural focus on the best interests of veterans.
Still, Tuchschmidt said he believes VA “will be a great system again.” But he also acknowledged making that happen will take time.