VA settles complaints by 3 Phoenix whistleblowers

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Veterans Affairs Department said Monday it has reached financial settlements with three employees who faced retaliation after filing whistleblower complaints about the troubled Phoenix VA hospital.

The employees were among the first to report widespread wrongdoing at the Phoenix hospital, including chronic delays for veterans seeking care and falsified waiting lists covering up those delays. Similar problems were soon identified at other VA medical facilities across the country in a scandal that forced the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a new law overhauling the agency and making it easier to fire senior officials.

Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a former co-director of emergency care at the Phoenix hospital; Paula Pedene, the hospital's former chief spokeswoman; and Damian Reese, a program analyst, all filed retaliation complaints with the independent Office of Special Counsel. The counsel's office and the VA announced the settlements Monday in separate statements.

The three employees will remain with the VA and received what the special counsel's office called "full and fair relief." Exact terms of the settlements were not disclosed.

Mitchell and Pedene have accepted new assignments, while Reese will continue as a program analyst at the Phoenix hospital. Mitchell will oversee the hospital's quality of patient care, while Pedene will work in the communications office of the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees VA health care.

"Dr. Mitchell, Ms. Pedene and Mr. Reese followed their consciences and reported wrongdoing, and their efforts have improved care and accountability at the VA," said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner.

Lerner applauded VA Secretary Robert McDonald and other VA leaders for acting quickly to resolve the Phoenix cases and taking steps to change the agency's culture, which she said has allowed and even encouraged retaliation against those who filed complaints.

By allowing the three "courageous employees to return to successful careers at the VA," the agency's current leaders are "sending a clear message: Whistleblowing should be encouraged, not punished," Lerner said.

McDonald said in a separate statement that the VA takes whistleblower complaints seriously and will not tolerate retaliation against those who raise issues that may enable VA to better serve veterans.

"We depend on VA employees and leaders to put the needs of veterans first and honor VA's core values of 'integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence,' " he said.

Pedene was removed from her $106,000-a-year job in December 2012 and transferred to the hospital library. In April, she was assigned to work in a windowless basement where she had few if any duties. "A horrible way to live" is how she described the experience in a phone interview Monday.

"I was humiliated every day," Pedene said. "Although I am looking forward to new opportunities I feel saddened I am not going to be able to do my public affairs role as I have done in Phoenix for the past 20 years."

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