Senator Raises Concerns Over VA Response to White River Junction Whistleblower Allegations
WASHINGTON – During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing yesterday, U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan questioned Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) General Counsel Nominee Richard Sauber on whistleblower protections and what the VA is doing to address backlogs in the processing of veterans’ VA benefits.
To watch the Senator’s questioning, click here.
The General Counsel, who provides legal advice and services to the VA, plays a critical role in creating an environment where VA employees can raise whistleblower complaints without fear of retribution -- and where their allegations are taken seriously and addressed. During her questioning, Senator Hassan discussed whistleblower allegations at the White River Junction VA Medical Center and pressed Sauber on how he would work to change how the VA handles whistleblower claims if he is confirmed.
“In March of this year, the Office of Special Counsel again found a VA response to a whistleblower complaint to be not reasonable—this time regarding allegations at the White River Junction Medical Center,” said Senator Hassan. “This highly concerning pattern of the VA mishandling whistleblower complaints puts our veterans at risk by contributing to a culture where VA employees are not comfortable coming forward to report misconduct.”
Sauber stated, “I read the reports… that you mention, and I think to put it mildly, they are troubling. I have worked my entire private career to ensure that management understands that an open and transparent culture in an institution is in everyone’s best interest… it’s our goal to make sure that the culture in the Department is such that anyone feels free to come forward with an allegation, with some concern, and that that person should not be persecuted…. The focus will be on the allegation and how we can use that allegation to improve the function of the Department.”
Senator Hassan also addressed the significant backlog of veterans’ disabilities claims and appeals, and asked how the Office of General Counsel can help improve processes in order to reduce the current backlog and address ongoing delays.
Sauber committed to working with Senator Hassan on this issue and responded that: “One of the principal goals that I’ll have if confirmed is to make sure, first, that the Office of General Counsel does not add to the sand in the gears, that we play no role in any sort of bureaucratic inertia, and to do my best with other parts of the Department to make sure that speed is important.”
Earlier this year, Senator Hassan urged the National Personnel Records Center, which maintains the personnel, health, and medical records of millions of veterans, to immediately use the $50 million included in the December COVID-19 relief and government funding package to address its backlog of veterans’ record requests.
Senator Hassan is working to support veterans and ensure that they have access to the resources that they need and have earned. The Senator helped pass into law bipartisan legislation that expanded vaccine access to all veterans, their spouses, and their caregivers. Additionally, the American Rescue Plan that Senator Hassan helped pass into law will strengthen veterans’ health care services, including by supporting mental health and telehealth, and also includes significant funding for job training to help veterans get good-paying jobs.