Did the VA ignore a tool that could have prevented the waitlist scandal?

Advocacy group says guidelines were in place

WASHINGTON, D.C. - What if there had been a tool that could have prevented the Veterans Affairs hospital waitlist scandals from happening, or at least made it safer for employees to report abuse?

Michael Halpern, a program manager at the Union for Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group with an alliance of more than 400,000 citizens and scientists, says one existed.

What was it? A White House imposed set of guidelines called scientific integrity policies. But don’t be thrown off by the word “scientific,” the policies were meant for all employees – scientists or not.

The problem, according to Halpern, was that “the VA failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity to improve its performance more than three years ago” and fully put the standards to work. The agency had previously been urged by outside stakeholders to do so.

John Holdren, the White House’s Science Advisor, asked the VA and two dozen other federal agencies and departments to develop the policies in December 2010.

The standards were meant to make sure politics or, for that matter, pressure from management, did not infringe on scientific findings. But Halpern points out the guidelines also were meant to apply to all types of data -- such as the names and wait times of patients at VA hospitals.

Think of the scientific integrity policies this way: similar to the metaphorical wall in newsrooms that is supposed to separate news from editorial content, the integrity policies was supposed to create a barrier between employees at government agencies and the political leaders appointed to oversee them.

But here’s the kicker: The standards were also supposed to give employees whistleblower protections whenever they found their work – keep those VA hospital waitlists in mind -- was being compromised.

“A strong policy could have prevented abuse like the wait-time manipulation from spiraling out of control,” Halpern said.

The VA had a version of the scientific integrity policies in place before this year’s scandal broke but, according to Halpern, there were two problems. VA employees didn’t know about them and the VA version was not strong enough because it lacked crucial details on procedures for reporting violations without getting into trouble, he said.

The VA’s standalone whistleblowing guidelines also lacked true protections, according to Joe Newman, director of communications at the Project on Government Oversight, a non-profit government watchdog group. “People (at the VA) weren’t encouraged to come forward, and it was pretty well known that if you came forward you’d be retaliated against,” he said.

But the VA stopped short of developing more detailed scientific integrity standards and making them easily viewable to employees and the public. Why? The VA chose not to provide an answer to DecodeDC after multiple attempts at contacting the agency before this story was published.  

“This is still a policy that lacks teeth and accountability, and it is clear that there are no significant efforts to use the policy to change agency culture, at least not yet,” Halpern said of the VA’s standards. “So far, it seems as if the VA just checked off a box, put the policy on the shelf, and moved on.”

Other government agencies have more stringent scientific integrity standards in place, according to Halpern. In a line by line comparison, Halpern found that both the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have guidelines that specify how results of any whistleblower-based investigation can be made public. Halpern says these stronger policies encourage transparency between scientists and the public.

In July, Robert McDonald, the new VA secretary, said in a message to employees that improvement of the department was necessary and that he would not “tolerate those who stifle initiation, seek to punish people who raise legitimate concerns or report problems, or lack integrity in word or deed.  Trust is essential in everything we do.”

In addition to reforms signed into law by President Barack Obama on Aug. 8, which some still think aren’t enough, Halpern believes that enhanced scientific integrity standards could start to fix systematic interference in the VA and alleviate employee fears about coming forward.

“The name of the game here is transparency and accountability—you see that there’s just not sufficient public reporting and no sufficient specificity to make scientists feel fully protected,” Halpern said. “…those employees who do fully engage in their jobs and bring the best information forward—are something we need to celebrate and protect.”

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