Army veteran Shea Wilkes said he became a target of the Veterans Affairs (VA) Inspector General (IG) after he blew the whistle on wait times at his VA medical center in Shreveport, Louisiana. And in 2015, he testified about his experience in a Senate hearing.
“We found out the IG was going against everybody. They were signaling out and trashing whistleblowers and things like that. I was pretty harsh on the IG in my testimony to the Senate,” Wilkes said. “I basically called them a joke.”
But when the VA IG released a report earlier this month about equipment stored in unsterile conditions, millions of dollars in supplies unaccounted for and failed leadership at the VA medical center in Washington, D.C., Wilkes said he saw it as a sign of hope that things at the agency might be changing for the better.
“They laid it to the VA really and truly, in my opinion. You would have never seen that, really. That, to me, is progress," Wilkes said.
The VA IG's investigation found the safety of patients at the D.C. center was put at risk. For example, patients were sometimes given unnecessary anesthesia and surgeons were forced to use instruments available to them instead of ones that were preferable.
Also, staff routinely could not find the equipment necessary because there was no reliable system to locate these items, causing employees at the D.C. center to borrow supplies from other hospitals while over 500,000 items sat unused in a warehouse.
But even with the VA IG's scathing report, Wilkes said he sees improvements and he is not the only one. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a group that had worked with VA whistleblowers in the past, has also seen the positive changes.
“We have seen a tonal shift there with the way inspector general Missal is talking about whistleblowers, and his communication with Congress seems to be better. We are very happy and hopeful about that," said POGO investigator Lydia Dennett.
Dennett said the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, created by Congress in 2017 to make it easier to fire those at fault for problems within the agency, has also helped, though she expected it to have a bigger impact.
“What we’ve seen since the creation of this office is that it’s mostly been low level employees that have been fired and that hasn’t contributed to the kind of systemic change that we really want to see," Dennett said.
One of the VA IG’s top criticisms of the D.C. center was a failure in leadership. Between 2013 and 2016, there were at least seven written reports highlighting these issues at the center, and many went unattended.
Earlier this month, VA Secretary David Shulkin confirmed at a press conference the center’s director Brian Hawkins had been fired and other key leaders within the center had been removed.
VA strategic communications adviser Ashleigh Barry told Circa besides Hawkins, four other employees at the center were fired, one resigned and at least two were placed in different positions.
"It’s very rare that they fire a director. If you look back at the history, they usually just move them around, and they’ve done that for decades. It’s pretty unfortunate because you’re moving problems around and you never really correct it," Wilkes said.
Wilkes hopes the shuffling of leaders found responsible for issues within the agency will come to end, especially since he said the leaders at his medical center were never held accountable.
"Even with the new laws, how many senior officials have been held accountable? Moving up to a different hospital and keeping them in a high level position is not, that’s not really accountability," Wilkes said.
And Wilkes plans to keep working with the agency to ensure positive changes continue to be made.
"The VA is moving toward changing the culture, but culture change is very difficult in an organization. It’s one of the hardest things, and it takes time," Wilkes said.