ICYMI: My Op-Ed on Protecting Illinois Veterans

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VA whistleblowers need more protection

By U.S. Senator Mark Kirk

Illinois is home to more than 700,000 men and women who have served our country in a military uniform. Throughout the state we entrust five Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and 27 clinics with the task of caring for our veterans. But when the VA falls short of that goal, it’s our job to protect both our nation’s heroes and the whistleblowers who speak up to defend them.

As chairman of the subcommittee that oversees federal funding for the VA, I have no tolerance for misconduct, patient neglect or retaliation against whistleblowers at our VA hospitals and clinics. On July 30, I marked National Whistleblower Appreciation Day by thanking whistleblowers from Illinois and around the country who have courageously spoken up to expose corruption and misconduct.

The occasion also was an opportunity to further investigate whistleblower claims of veteran abuse and the retaliation faced after reporting these allegations. At a hearing of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, we heard testimony about the dark side of VA hospital care from Dr. Katherine Mitchell, the former medical Director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Post-Deployment Center and the whistleblower who exposed the Phoenix, Arizona, VA scandal that led to the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki.

We also heard testimony from Dr. Lisa Nee, a former cardiologist at the Edward J. Hines, Jr., VA in Maywood, who experienced retaliation from VA officials after reporting unnecessary surgeries, boxes of unread medical tests and questionable administrative practices at Hines.

Dr. Nee testified that she was given numerous bankers boxes full of unread echocardiograms, representing what she estimated to be hundreds of veterans, many of whom “had already died from or suffered cardiac complications after the study was performed but prior to it being interpreted.”

The fact that doctors and leadership at Hines knew of this misconduct and covered it up is disturbing, and the American people will not stand to have our heroes treated as second-class citizens.

Reports of patient abuse, manipulated wait times and whistleblower retaliation are rampant at Hines here in Illinois and at VA hospitals across the country. Our nation’s heroes deserve better than mistreatment and neglect at the hospitals and clinics whose mission is to provide them quality care.

After speaking with Dr. Mitchell, Dr. Nee and other whistleblowers, it became clear to me that not only are our veterans subject to abuse, but the nurses and doctors who sound the alarm on misconduct currently have inadequate protection from performance-based retaliation under the law. So I authored legislation, which has already passed through the Appropriations Committee, that funds veterans’ care at record levels and protects whistleblowers by encouraging them to speak out against instances of corruption or neglect.

The bill closes a loophole in the Whistleblower Protection Act by prohibiting retaliation against VA healthcare providers through performance reports.

I also recently launched a VA Whistleblower Hotline for veterans and employees who witness poor care, mismanagement or misconduct by VA staff and officials. Those who witness corruption can contact my staff by phone  at (773) 431-4099 or by email at vets@kirk.senate.gov.

As Americans, we must take care of our veterans and protect the whistleblowers who speak up when our veterans are mistreated. By identifying misconduct early and investigating allegations aggressively, we can help ensure that all of our nation’s heroes are provided the quality care that they so rightly deserve.

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