SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Investigators said they are examining allegations that supervisors in the veterans' health system retaliated against 37 employees who complained about practices such as months-long delays in scheduling of appointments, and the acting head of the sprawling system responded Friday that such reprisals would not be tolerated.
"I think that is wrong. It is absolutely unacceptable," Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson said at a news conference Friday following a visit to a San Antonio VA facility.
"There have been questions raised about intimidation or even retaliation. There is a law that forbids that, and we'll follow the law," Gibson said.
His comments came after the Office of Special Counsel said it was looking into possible retaliation against 37 employees of the VA who filed so-called "whistleblower" complaints. The office is an independent watchdog separate from the VA which looks into whistleblower complaints from across the federal government.
The office said it had blocked disciplinary actions against three VA employees so far, including one who was suspended for seven days after complaining to the VA's inspector general about improper scheduling.
The agency also blocked a 30-day suspension without pay for another VA employee who reported inappropriate use of patient restraints and blocked demotion of a third employee who reported mishandling of patient care funds.
The complaints about retaliation against whistleblowers came from 28 VA facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico , the special counsel's office said Friday. About half the 37 complaints have come in the last two months, or after allegations about treatment delays of up to three months for veterans and secret waiting lists first surfaced.
The disclosures have set off a furor in Washington, forcing the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week, and prompting Congress to consider legislation to make it easier for treatment of veterans outside the government-funded VA.
Gibson, who has stepped in as acting secretary, apologized on Friday for the failures and said he is doing everything he can to fix the system.
"We have lost an awful lot of trust, and we've got work to do to earn it back," Gibson said. "With veterans, we'll do that one veteran at a time by reaching out to veterans that have been waiting too long (for care) and saying, 'You've been waiting, I want to get you in the clinic. When can you come in?'"
Some veterans whose names were kept off the official electronic appointment list have died, and Gibson said on Thursday that he would ask the inspector general to look into 18 more cases of deaths to see if there is any indication they were related to long wait times. The 18 are in addition to 17 deaths reported last month.
The 18 veterans who died were among 1,700 veterans identified in a report last week by the VA's inspector general as being "at risk of being lost or forgotten." The investigation also found broad and deep-seated problems with delays in patient care and manipulation of waiting lists throughout the VA health care system, which provides medical care to about 9 million veterans and family members.
Gibson said in San Antonio that he has been in daily contact with Richard Griffin, the VA's acting inspector general, and he expressed confidence that Griffin and his investigators will be able to ferret out the truth, regardless of any attempts to squelch potential whistleblowers.
"We have a pretty savvy IG. They are going to gather information from the bottom up," he said. "These guys didn't just fall off the turnip truck. These are professionals at their trade," he added.