VA reaches settlements with 3 Phoenix whistleblowers

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WASHINGTON — The Veterans Affairs Department said Monday it has settled complaints filed by three employees who faced retaliation after filing whistleblower complaints about the troubled Phoenix VA hospital.

The employees were among the first to report widespread wrongdoing at the Phoenix hospital, including chronic delays for veterans seeking care and falsified waiting lists covering up those delays. Similar problems were soon identified at other VA medical facilities across the country in a scandal that forced the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a new law overhauling the agency and making it easier to fire senior officials.

Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a former co-director of emergency care at the Phoenix hospital; Paula Pedene, the hospital's former chief spokeswoman; and Damian Reese, a program analyst, all filed retaliation complaints with the independent Office of Special Counsel. The counsel's office and the VA announced the settlements Monday in separate statements.

The three employees will remain with the VA and received what the special counsel's office called "full and fair relief." Exact terms of the settlements were not disclosed, although at least two of the cases include financial payments to the employees.

The settlements are first reached by the special counsel's office since a national uproar this spring over reports of excessive wait times and manipulation of appointment records at VA facilities across the country. The special counsel's office is investigating more than 125 complaints of retaliation at the VA following employee allegations about improper patient scheduling, understaffing and other problems at the VA's 970 hospitals and clinics nationwide.

Mitchell and Pedene have accepted new assignments, the VA said, while Reese will continue as a program analyst at the Phoenix hospital. Mitchell will help manage the quality of patient care in the Phoenix region, while Pedene will work in the communications office of the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees VA health care.

Mitchell was removed as emergency room director after reporting understaffing and inadequate training at the Phoenix hospital, while Pedene lost her jobs as Phoenix VA spokeswoman after reporting financial mismanagement by senior officials. Reese was given negative performance reviews after he complained about data manipulation that made patient wait times look shorter than they actually were.

"Dr. Mitchell, Ms. Pedene and Mr. Reese followed their consciences and reported wrongdoing, and their efforts have improved care and accountability at the VA," said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner.

Lerner applauded VA Secretary Robert McDonald and other VA leaders for acting quickly to resolve the Phoenix cases and taking steps to change the agency's culture, which she said has allowed and even encouraged retaliation against those who filed complaints. By allowing the three "courageous employees to return to successful careers at the VA," the agency's current leaders are "sending a clear message: Whistleblowing should be encouraged, not punished," Lerner said.

McDonald said in a separate statement that the VA takes whistleblower complaints seriously and will not tolerate retaliation against those who raise issues that may enable VA to better serve veterans.

"We depend on VA employees and leaders to put the needs of veterans first and honor VA's core values of 'integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence,' " he said.

Pedene was removed from her $106,000-a-year job in December 2012 and transferred to the hospital library. In April, she was assigned to work in a windowless basement where she had few if any duties. In a phone interview Monday, Pedene called her experience "a horrible way to live" and said she was "humiliated every day."

While looking forward to new opportunities, "I feel saddened I am not going to be able to do my public affairs role as I have done in Phoenix for the past 20 years," Pedene said.

Mitchell, in a separate interview, called the settlement a relief. But she said she hopes the VA will take action against senior officials who removed her from her $137,000-a-year job and put her on administrative leave in September 2012, after she complained about problems at the hospital, where dozens of veterans died while on waiting lists for appointments.

Mitchell told a congressional committee in July that the hospital's emergency room was severely understaffed and could not keep up with a "dangerous flood of patients" there. Strokes, heart attacks, internal head bleeding and other serious medical problems were missed by overwhelmed staffers, she said.

In her new assignment, Mitchell will help oversee quality-care at five hospitals and 46 clinics in the Phoenix-based Southwest region. While she applauded efforts by McDonald and other national VA leaders, Mitchell said she has seen no evidence of a cultural change at the Phoenix VA.

"I am waiting for it to trickle down to the Phoenix level," she said. "I haven't seen any change yet."

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