The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Veterans Affairs recently discontinued its investigation of 36,000 complaints, including those involving potential health dangers to VA patients. This has gotten whistleblowers up in arms. At a recent federal hearing, Deputy Inspector General Linda Halliday simply said her office is overworked and understaffed: “There is a serious discrepancy between the size of our workforce and the size of our workload.”
That explanation is not flying with whistleblowers, who accuse the OIG of doing a poor job of investigating – and often target the whistleblowers themselves. Shea Wilkes was one of them. A mental health social worker in Shreveport, Louisiana, Wilkes filed a report in 2013 about a “secret waiting list” at the local VA hospital, Overton Brooks. That list included 37 veterans who died while waiting for medical attention. After a year, Wilkes’ complaint had yet to get a response from the OIG. He finally went to the media.
That got a response – but not the one Wilkes had hoped for. Instead, the OIG targeted him in a criminal investigation. They were more interested in how Wilkes got hold of the waiting list showing that patients were not receiving proper care. He believed the real purpose of the investigation was intimidation. In a letter to the Office of Special Counsel – a federal whistleblower protection agency that reports directly to the White House – Wilkes wrote:
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 …It has become apparent that 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 further says that the OIG is more interested in “damage control” than dealing with internal problems.
Halliday recently assumed the IG post after her predecessor, Richard Griffin, resigned under fire from Wilke’s whistleblower group, VA Truth Tellers. She is attempting to bring reforms to the OIG by reallocating resources and instituting protections for whistleblowers. Nonetheless, Halliday faces an uphill battle, with only 650 staff members. Each individual member of the OIG is responsible for the oversight and potential investigations of nearly 540 VA employees – and the complaints keep coming at a rate of 40,000 a year. It is virtually impossible for a single inspector to deal with a caseload of that size. “The OIG is not the right size to respond to all the complaints we currently receive,” Halliday told USA Today.
Given the size of the US military budget (currently representing 57% of all federal spending), one would think the government that sends these men and women to war could spend a little more money insuring they get proper care and treatment when they come home.