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South Carolina VA doctors feared reprisals for speaking out

Recent news reports indicate that the Veterans Administration waged a campaign of retaliation against employees who sought to expose allegations of medical malpractice in VA hospitals. Some of the “whistleblowers” who fought back anonymously against the intimidation include VA doctors in South Carolina.

It was not just the threat of possibly career-ending reprisals that apparently kept many VA workers from speaking out. According to information revealed by the Office of Special Counsel, nearly 40 individuals actually experienced forms of retaliatory behavior. The OSC has been seeking to address the punishments that several of these individuals received.

According to a news account, some early allegations of medical malpractice or hospital negligence at VA hospitals began late in 2013, when VA doctors in South Carolina and another nearby state approached a cable news network to begin speaking out. They claimed that delayed procedures had resulted in the deaths of as many as 20 veterans.

Yet such was their trepidation of being discovered, none of them would agree to appear on camera. They claimed that VA administrators had created an effective atmosphere of intimidation, such as written postings in hospitals warning employees not to speak to the media, which even threatened jail time to anyone who spoke out.

Instead, the doctors’ revelations to reporters took on qualities similar to what one would expect to see in a spy novel: meetings in secret locations, communications that had to include code words, and using third-party intermediaries to make document drops.

The experience of the South Carolina doctors was not unique, the news network discovered as it delved further into its investigation; VA personnel all over the nation were experiencing similar top-down efforts to keep adverse information from leaking out.

A lesson can be drawn from the experience of the VA doctors that may apply beyond that agency’s hospitals. For some health care professionals, who may be aware of hospital negligence or episodes of medical malpractice, the prospect of threats against their economic livelihood can be a powerful deterrent against speaking out. Such a code of silence can keep patients and the general public alike in the dark about dangerous conditions in hospitals, and create an atmosphere of secrecy can go on for years.

Source: WTKR, "Fear of reprisals kept the VA scandal a secret," Matt Knight, June 6, 2014

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