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VA boss: No retaliation for whistleblowers

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Posted at 5:24 PM, Feb 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-23 17:24:34-05

The Department of Veterans Affairs has already drafted an initial report on its internal investigation of the Cincinnati VA Medical Center – a facility under fire over allegations of mismanagement and possible misconduct by hospital leaders.

“We've gotten a preliminary report,” VA Secretary Bob McDonald said in an interview Tuesday.

“We can't talk about what's in the report publicly,” he said, because the “investigation is ongoing.”

The Scripps News Washington Bureau and WCPO spent four months investigating whistleblowers' concerns. Findings include allegations of misconduct by high-level officials at the local and regional office, which have triggered two federal probes.

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Tuesday, McDonald said VA employees in Cincinnati who have raised concerns would not face retaliation.  

“Anyone who retaliates against a whistleblower will be held accountable,” he said.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald, former chief executive of Procter & Gamble Co., assured members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Tuesday that reports of problems at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center are being investigated. (Scripps News photo by Matt Anzur)

McDonald will visit the Cincinnati VA to evaluate the situation, said Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. Brown said he planned to accompany McDonald, which would happen “in a very short period of time.”

“We'll talk to some of these whistleblowers and we'll get answers beyond what we already know,” Brown said in an interview Tuesday.

A source familiar with the senator’s plans said the visit would likely happen in the next few weeks.

McDonald did not directly criticize the hospital’s leaders in either his testimony or an interview, citing the ongoing investigation. He also referred to the Cincinnati hospital as “one of our very best” and mentioned its recent five-star VA rating in a quarterly quality report.

McDonald told lawmakers that if the allegations were correct, the agency would “take action as quickly as possible to remediate them.”

McDonald’s comments came a day after his deputy, Sloan Gibson, said he was “grateful to the folks in Cincinnati that are raising the issues.”

Gibson said the department wants to create an environment where employees who see wrongdoing not only “feel OK raising their hand, but that they’re encouraged to raise their hand.”

But some lawmakers were skeptical of VA leaders’ assurances, saying that too often whistleblowers face retaliation within the VA and that such retaliation has rarely been adequately punished.

Brown said at Tuesday’s hearing that Cincinnati VA employees have described the situation to him as “toxic.” He said issues like “nepotism, lack of cleanliness, mismanagement” at the hospital raised the specter of whether local veterans would receive proper care while the investigations played out.

As Scripps and WCPO reported, two of the central figures in the Cincinnati saga are Dr. Barbara Temeck, acting chief of staff for the hospital, and Jack Hetrick, the VA’s regional director.

Dr. Temeck has written prescriptions for controlled substances for Hetrick’s wife, documents show. Federal and state officials say Dr. Temeck does not hold a valid license to make such prescriptions privately outside the VA system.

Dr. Temeck has declined requests to be interviewed.

The agency has removed Hetrick’s oversight authority of the Cincinnati hospital while the federal investigations proceed “to ensure no conflict of interest.” The Cincinnati facility is now temporarily reporting to a Pittsburgh-based regional director, Dr. Michael Adelman, who visited the Cincinnati VA on Monday and Tuesday to elicit feedback and gain an understanding of the organization.

Dr. Adelman has not responded to questions about whether any personnel changes have been made at the hospital.

Scripps News Washington Bureau and WCPO will continue to report on conditions and factors in the Cincinnati VA and nationwide in the coming days and weeks. If you have a tip for us to investigate or if you're a veteran who wants to share your experience seeking care at any VA hospital in the nation, drop us a line. Mark.Greenblatt@Scripps.com, Daniel.Monk@WCPO.com, Aaron.Kessler@Scripps.com .

(Angela H. Hill, Scripps National Investigative Producer, contributed to this report)