The Veterans Affairs Department has a long history of backlogs, waitlists and management issues that persisted long before the scandals that have recently become known. Despite piles of scathing inspector general reports and numerous recommendations from federal auditors, the same problems have remained.
That’s why a private, independent government watchdog is stepping in to take matters into its own hands.
The Project on Government Oversight, an independent firm based in DC, which has been flagging government waste and fraud since 1980, teamed up with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) to develop a whistleblower website that provides agency employees and veterans with an encrypted platform independent of the VA to expose wrongdoings within the department.
Instead of relying on government auditors alone to identify potential wrongdoing, the groups say providing people with a reporting tool to hold the VA accountable without having to go through federal channels, may be more effective.
Adam Zagorin, a resident journalist who has been with POGO since 2009, spoke with The Fiscal Times about the watchdog’s efforts.
“The VA’s problems have existed for a long time…. The IG does what it can, but we are interested in further highlighting the problem,” Zagorin said.”
VAOversight.org launched two weeks ago, after news broke that a VA hospital in Phoenix, AZ, allegedly kept hidden wait lists that resulted in at least 40 potentially preventable deaths. The department’s IG released a preliminary report late Wednesday night confirming that at least 1,700 Vets were on a hidden list.
Since then, other stories of negligence at VA hospitals across the country have surfaced, and the IG has broadened its investigation to include 42 other VA medical centers for possible abuse of scheduling practices.
Now more and more whistleblowers are coming forward—many through nonprofits like POGO, or through the press.
One whistleblower described operations at an award winning VA hospital in Texas as an “organized crime syndicate.” He told The Daily Beast, “People up on top are suddenly afraid they may actually be prosecuted and they’re pressuring the little guys down below to cover it all up.”
Cornell Law School professor Stewart Schwab told US News that going to these third party outlets may be preferable rather than going to the agency. “This is particularly so when there has been a pattern of unresponsiveness.”
“That’s the reason for the website,” Zagorin said. “It provides a mechanism for identifying waste, fraud, abuse and correcting it, which ultimately benefits everybody.”
Related: Obama Sticks to Scandal Playbook in VA Mess
So far, Zagorin says at least 577 people have submitted complaints to POGO’s website. Among those are veterans, doctors, or current or former VA employees. He said the complaints are coming from all over the country.
“People are submitting complaints from the South, East, West, North, everywhere,” Zagorin said. He added that a certain geographical region had a high concentration of complaints, though due to the ongoing investigation he would not disclose where—though he ruled out the Phoenix area.
The complaints themselves are just as diverse—concerns about everything from the quality of care and waiting lists to a “variety of other things which go beyond the scope of what we’ve heard,” though he would not disclose more due to the sensitivity of the investigations.
Zagorin noted that not everyone is dissatisfied with the care the VA provides. In the latest American Consumer Satisfaction Index, the VA scored 84—four points above the industry average in consumer satisfaction.
Just like the VA, however, POGO’s resources can only stretch so far. With a staff of 24 people and nearly 600 complaints and counting, Zagorin predicts the process will not be a quick one.
That’s because after each complaint is vetted, POGO staff will be making calls to each whistleblower and combing through documents to validate the claims. That is no small feat.
“Multiple people are looking at these [submissions] and reading and taking account every single thing,” Zagorin said.
The organization isn’t just taking complaints through the website; if whistleblowers can’t access a computer, they can contact POGO through phone or paper submissions.
The watchdog organization has a long history of assisting people who blow the whistle on the federal government and because retaliation is common toward whistleblowers, Zagorin said POGO is committed to protecting them. That’s why the website reads in big, bold, glaring letters, “FOR YOUR PROTECTION, DO NOT USE A GOVERNMENT OR CONTRACTOR PHONE, FAX, OR COMPUTER TO CONTACT POGO.”
“Anytime you have a whistleblower government employee stepping forward to identify or report wrongdoing there is a likelihood that the person could be retaliated against,” Zagorin said. “People who are committing wrongdoing are exposed. And we are going to protect them, so we can have a better government.”
Asked if POGO would create a similar effort for other federal agencies that have been plagued with mismanagement issues, abuse and fraud, Zagorin laughed, “There are a lot of government agencies....”
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