You know those four Department of Veterans Affairs whistleblowers who testified that they'd been harassed, humiliated, reassigned, investigated and painted as unstable? They don't even have stories that are out of the ordinary, according to Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.
On the contrary, Miller called the four seated before him at a hearing Tuesday night that went on past midnight "a representative sample of the hundreds of VA whistleblowers who've contacted our committee" in recent months to report retaliation against agency employees who exposed long wait times, falsified records and other problems so serious that veterans may have died as a result.
As a nurse, an internist and finally co-director of the emergency room, Katherine Mitchell has worked for 16 years at the Phoenix VA hospital where dozens of patients did die waiting for care, although officials have said it's unclear whether the delays caused the deaths. Mitchell was suspended and demoted after reporting that the ER was so dangerously understaffed that heart attacks, strokes and internal bleeding were being overlooked.
Jose Matthews was chief of psychiatry at a VA hospital in St. Louis before he reported problems with both record-keeping and care, and he was forced out of that job, too - not fired, mind you, but not able to do his work, either.
"Anyone involved in patient care enjoys almost lifetime tenure" at VA, he told the panel. Matthews didn't exactly quake at the prospect of being terminated instead of being kept around and tortured: "They already professionally assassinated me,'' he said. And like the other whistleblowers who testified, he seemed most upset about how all the infighting had hurt his patients.
He said he knew one veteran who had committed suicide while waiting for care. Another man, whom he had called after running across the man's unfinished application, told Matthews he'd been in such bad health that he took the day off work and made the 90-minute drive to the hospital - desperate to be seen.
Instead, he spent hours filling out paperwork, only to hear that staffers would be in touch the following week - which never happened.
Scott Davis, a program specialist at the Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, reported a backlog of 600,000 benefit enrollment applications and evidence that the records of more than 10,000 veterans may have been deleted. In January 2013, he first sent up a flare over 40,000 unprocessed applications, most of them from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Several weeks ago, after he emailed White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors about his ongoing concerns, he got a response - from his supervisor, Sherry Williams. It began: "This message is being sent to you on behalf of the Acting Secretary and Mr. Nabors." The email, which Davis provided to The Washington Post, then warned that Davis "may be charged AWOL" if he did not report for duty or "request leave using proper leave procedures."
Just hours before the hearing, Davis said, he finally heard back from VA that Williams "wasn't authorized to speak on behalf of the White House,'' he said in a Wednesday interview. "How did she know about it is the question. And she used to work for [the inspector general], so she knows that's witness intimidation."
Davis also testified that as a result of his whistleblowing, his employment records had been changed and he was put on involuntary administrative leave.
Nabors' blistering review for President Barack Obama of the VA scandal noted that as of June 23, the Office of Special Counsel had more than 50 pending cases that allege threats to patient health or safety. The office also is investigating allegations of retaliation against at least 37 whistleblowers.
As Davis sees it, "I was told to call the common line, the information I gave them was leaked, and they're not even interested enough in their own reputation to say, 'We didn't do that.' "
Christian Head, a head and neck surgeon and quality-assurance official for VA's Los Angeles health system, testified that a supervisor had paid him back for cooperating with an investigation of her by identifying him as a "rat" on a slide shown at the holiday staff party.
Asked whether anything had changed, in terms of awareness, since the scandals became news, Head said yes: "They're very much aware I was coming here tonight,'' he said of his supervisors.
James Tuchschmidt, a top official at the Veterans Health Administration, profusely apologized to the whistleblowers: "I'm past being upset; I'm very disillusioned and sickened by all of this," he said at the hearing.
Yet the retaliation culture is still being tolerated.
And why are those who cared about veterans enough to sacrifice their careers still being punished, while those whose coverups had such tragic consequences remain in place?
Melinda Henneberger is a columnist for The Washington Post.