Friday, June 6, 2014 | 11:24 a.m.
WASHINGTON — A federal investigative agency is looking into claims that Veterans Affairs supervisors retaliated against 37 employees who filed whistleblower complaints, including some who complained about improper scheduling practices at the heart of a growing health care scandal.
The independent Office of Special Counsel says it has blocked disciplinary actions against three VA employees who reported wrongdoing, 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, a spokesman said Friday.
The report by the special counsel's office comes amid a furor over allegations that patients have waited three months or more for appointments as VA officials falsified records to cover up delays at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide.
Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said her office appreciates the VA's cooperation in agreeing to postpone disciplinary actions against the three employees who filed complains but said the VA should not retaliate against workers who are trying to disclose and prevent wrongdoing.
"Receiving candid information about harmful practices from employees will be critical to the VA's efforts to identify problems and find solutions. However, employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation," Lerner said in a statement.
The special counsel's office is investigating complaints of retaliation from employees at 28 VA facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico, spokesman Nick Schwellenbach said. The agency also is reviewing 49 additional whistleblower complaints related to scheduling improprieties and other potential threats to patient safety at VA facilities, he said.
About half the 49 complaints have been reported in the past two months, after allegations about treatment delays and secret waiting lists at the VA hospital in Phoenix became public in April.
The agency's investigation is ongoing, Lerner said.
The VA's acting chief, Sloan Gibson, said Thursday that 18 Phoenix-area veterans whose names were kept off an official VA appointment list have died. The 18 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."