July 26, 2021

CQ - Roll Call: Bipartisan VA Bill Aims to Empower Employee Whistleblowers

WASHINGTON – In case you missed it, CQ – Roll Call published an article on bipartisan legislation that U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and John Boozman (R-AR) introduced last week to require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide training to employees on reporting waste, fraud, and abuse.

 

See below for the CQ-Roll Call article on the Senators’ bill:

 

CQ: Bipartisan VA bill aims to empower employee whistleblowers

By Mark Satter

 

A bipartisan pair of senators introduced legislation Thursday that aims to prevent fraud and abuse in Veterans Affairs facilities by mandating employee whistleblower training and easing restrictions on communication between employees and the agency’s watchdog.

 

The bill, called the VA OIG Training Act of 2021, was introduced by Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs members Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and John Boozman, R-Ark. It would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to train employees on reporting “waste, fraud and abuse.”

 

Currently, VA employees are offered a 45-minute whistleblower training on spotting fraud and abuse in facilities, but that training is optional and some employees opt-out.

 

The legislation would also loosen restrictions on communication between VA employees and the department’s Office of the Inspector General to allow for the OIG to contact employees via email at least twice a year without having to seek permission from the VA secretary, as currently is the case.

 

“VA employees must know to speak up if they see concerns with veterans’ care or other waste, fraud, and abuse,” said Hassan in an email. “This bipartisan bill will help ensure that VA employees are vigilant in order to protect the benefits and care that veterans have earned and deserve.”

 

Boozman said in an email that the bill would foster greater cooperation between VA employees and the  inspector general.

 

And VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal said in an email that the bill would lead to better oversight over the federal agency that oversees health care and other benefits for the nation’s veterans.

 

“Effective oversight depends on VA employees reporting wrongdoing and cooperating fully with VA Office of Inspector General investigations, inspections, audits, and evaluations. Early and accurate reporting by VA staff can save patients’ lives, protect VA employees, ensure veterans timely receive needed benefits and services, and recoup billions of dollars in monetary recoveries and avoided costs,” Missal said.

 

The VA has long struggled to curb a culture of retaliation against whistleblowers.

 

Just last month, a report from Missal’s office found that fear of retaliation led employees to keep quiet for years about a pathologist at a VA hospital in Arkansas who was routinely drunk at work and misdiagnosed thousands of veterans. At least 15 of these veterans died as a result.

 

And Congress has attempted to correct the VA’s failings for years.

 

In 2017, Congress passed a law (PL 115-41) that set new timelines and disciplinary review procedures for employees and senior executives, and created the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

 

But in 2019, whistleblowers told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that little had changed at the VA and that a culture of retaliation against whistleblowers remained prevalent.

 

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