The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is investigating claims of a whistleblower who revealed the use of a secret appointment waiting list at a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana.
The list included 37 veterans who died awaiting care.
Mental health social worker Shea Wilkes, an employee at Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana contacted the media in June 2013 to reveal his bosses and the VA inspector general (OIG) had done nothing to address his year-old complaints about excessive wait times. Wilkes’ attorney Richard John says OIG turned the tables on his client, opening a criminal investigation into how Wilkes obtained the list he used as evidence to show patients were not receiving adequate care at Overton Brooks VA Medical Center.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent office established to protect whistleblowers and reporting to the president, says it wants to get to the bottom of the secret appointment list and find out why Wilkes has not been granted whistleblower protection.
“The Special Counsel is really interested in helping,” Wilkes said.
Focused on Whistleblower
OSC opened its investigation in 2014 after Wilkes sent a letter criticizing OIG’s handling of his complaints.
“What I find astonishing is that the majority of the OIG’s investigation is not into the allegations mentioned above but in only how I obtained the mental health waiting list,” Wilkes wrote.
“Numerous employees … have expressed an interest in speaking with the OIG and I have relayed this to the OIG, but still at this point OIG has not spoken with many of the mental health staff members that have information related to the manipulation of appointment times, etc.,” Wilkes said.
“It has become apparent individuals within leadership have also made it very clear to others in the service that the whistleblower is under investigation in an effort to keep others not to come forward,” Wilkes wrote. “As I also said in my previous complaint, there have been threats of legal action if leadership finds out who released or releases any information to me or the media.”
John says recent communications with OSC have convinced him the agency is interested in solving the problems at VA facilities.
“They are concerned with the issues causing the problem and moving along because they have [investigative] deadlines to meet,” John said. “There certainly have been a lot of investigators up there [at the hospital] the past eight or nine months. Whether it’s the [OIG] or OSC I don’t know, but there has been a lot of activity up there.”
Wilkes, an Army veteran, has worked at the Shreveport VA for eight years. In May 2013, he discovered veterans were waiting months, even years for appointments. To mask the hospital’s poor performance, Wilkes alleges staffers hid many veterans on a secret waiting list and the number of patients actually seen was falsely inflated. In addition, top administrators received bonus pay for high rates of patient care. Wilkes reported the problem to Assistant Chief of Staff Patrick McGauly, who was later promoted to chief and is now stepping down from that position.
No Action on Complaint
Wilkes says nothing was done to correct the situation, and one month later Wilkes filed a complaint with OIG. In fall 2013, Wilkes saw a secret waiting list schedulers were using at a service window.
In May 2014, VA attorneys issued a memo to all staff, instructing them not to disclose or distribute to outside parties any evidence on wait times.
“Basically, [the VA doesn’t] want stuff coming out, because they are trying to cover everything up,” Wilkes said.
The scandal came to a head in June 2014, when an employee at the Phoenix VA hospital reported a secret waiting list to the media. Emboldened, Wilkes came forward to reporters and to U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), who then sent a letter to OIG demanding an investigation.
“The next day, two criminal investigators from OIG showed up and spoke to Shea,” John said. “He thought they were there at the request of Sen. Vitter, and they were not. They feigned not having knowledge of Shea being a whistleblower and they were there about how he had the list and why. They were not there to investigate the fact that a list was created.”
Investigators even took the hard drive from Wilkes’ computer and asked him to submit to a polygraph, which he declined.
“They told me, ‘We don’t see anything illegal [being done by hospital officials],'” Wilkes said.
That’s when Wilkes complained to OSC.
The OIG continues to investigate allegations related to wait times at various facilities, says Catherine Gromek, spokewoman for the OIG.
“While we will not comment on ongoing work, the OIG has many investigative tools that we use during any investigation, including interviews, document reviews, email reviews, and the use of polygraphs,” she said.
John has instructed OIG not to contact Wilkes but to rather go through him as his attorney.
“I said I would talk to [OIG] about anything regarding the list, but not how he got it,” John said.
John says OIG declined the offer.
Tori Richards ([email protected]) is a reporter for Watchdog.org, where an earlier version of this article originally appeared. Reprinted with permission.
“Special Memorandum: Certificate of Need Modernization; Core Principles,” Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, October 8, 2014: http://chfs.ky.gov/NR/rdonlyres/A8B19E4D-2B97-44C1-A461-9E8D3BEACD94/0/SpecialMemorandumCONModernization.doc