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Special Counsel Investigates Alleged Retaliation Against 37 VA Whistleblowers

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(NBC News) -- The U.S. Office of the Special Counsel is investigating alleged retaliation against 37 whistleblowers in the Department of Veterans Affairs, including a case in which a worker was suspended after complaining about improper scheduling procedures.

In a press release issued late Thursday, the OSC said the complaints alleging illegal retaliation were filed by employees at VA facilities in 19 states: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wyoming. The OSC, which is charged with protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, did not identify the facilities.

Nick Schwellenbach, a spokesman for the OSC, told NBC News that the VA has “one of the highest reprisal case rates in the federal government.”

“We’re concerned by what we’re seeing,” he said. “… The frequency of retaliation complaints has given us a lot of pause.”

The OSC release provided details on three of the 37 cases under review -- a subset of the OSC’s cases involving the VA -- including one in which an employee complained to the VA’s Office of the Inspector General about scheduling and coding procedures at an unnamed VA facility. Similar allegations at a VA hospital in Phoenix in March touched off a widening scandal that led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week.

In the case detailed in the OSC release, the VA employee allegedly was informed after filing the complaint that a seven-day suspension would be imposed, had his or her performance evaluation lowered and was reassigned, the release said.

The other cases involved a VA employee who reported the “inappropriate and continuous use of patient restraints in violation of VA rules and procedures,” and a worker who was reassigned and facing demotion after disclosing the mishandling of patient care funds, it said.

At OSC’s request, the release said, the VA agreed to stay the proposed discipline in the cases to allow OSC to further investigate the reprisal claims.

Schwellenbach, the OSC spokesman, also noted that the VA itself has expressed support for whistleblowers in the wake of the scheduling manipulation allegations.

“We’re encouraged by the statements from VA leadership over the last few days, that have recognized the importance of protecting whistleblowers and their role in highlighting problems within the VA system,” he said.

The VA has been rocked in recent weeks by whistleblower allegations that dozens of VA facilities have been falsifying records showing how long veterans were having to wait for medical appointments to ensure that administrators would receive financial bonuses for meeting their goals. The VA hospital in Phoenix was the first VA facility to be hit by the allegations, but officials with the agency’s Office of the Inspector General now say they are examining similar reports at dozens of VA facilities.
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