THE BLOG
06/16/2014 09:19 am ET | Updated Aug 16, 2014

Omerta at the VA: Breaking the Spell of Silence and Intimidation

Scott Olson via Getty Images

A June 15, 2014 article in the New York Times details how VA administrators routinely punished employees who spoke out in the interest of improving patient care. This is an important step in breaking the iron grip of a pervasive culture of "silence and intimidation" at VA. The article provides pictures and names and interviews with real VA employees who, after speaking up on behalf of patient care issues, were punished and made to feel as if they were "crazy," and in an "alternate universe." This has another name: gaslighting.

As the founder of a trusted, research-proven CBO (community-based organization) respected throughout the veteran service community, this confirms and illuminates a host of extremely disturbing experiences I've had over the past seven years. In 2007 I gave testimony at California State Senate hearings in Sacramento, CA. Bucking the anti-VA tide, I said that there are some in VA who are working collaboratively with non-profits to explore innovative ways to effectively serve large number of veterans. Within two weeks the leader at the VA with whom we had initiated discussions, and whose name I did not publicly reveal, was nearly fired and cut off all discussions in fear for his job.

In 2012, a newly appointed national VA leader in DC was enthusiastic about collaborating with our program and instructed me to speak with a respected and effective VISN (Veterans Integrated Service Network) employee who could work out details of a grant. I happened to know this person and we collaborated to draw up a very modest proposal which he submitted to his boss. After months with no word he finally called back and with regret said that for the first time in his long tenure a proposal of his had been rebuffed. He gave no clear reason, only scant details about getting them into trouble ... with Congress. At the time I had been independently speaking with Congressional leaders, who were expressing their frustration with the VA.

As I pieced things together, I realized that his boss was afraid of "getting in trouble" with a powerful legislator who they feared would cause funding trouble for the VISN if they worked with an out-of-state, though more established, trusted and research-proven group. He suggested I call the national leader of their unit in DC again. I did and was shocked to receive an email saying that they could not help, "due to the same reasons" given at the VISN level: A national level VA leader was confirming that the fear of "getting in trouble" was the reason she could not partner with our innovative, evidence-based program, after initially expressing her enthusiastic interest.

A similar dynamic has played out many times not only in VA but in our dealings with DoD, Congress and the corporate world. Although I was not an employee of the systems in question it was nonetheless jaw dropping and crazy-making. It also put the lie to public proclamations by respected leaders about how important it was to find where to wisely invest monies, and how difficult it was to identify "top shelf," "gold standard," evidence-based programs. This is not a meritocracy, no matter what anyone says. Organizational stigma, we learned, was another major reason. Not wanting to be seen as "needing the help of a CBO" - which equated to an admission of not being able to themselves provide such innovative services.

In 2013 a major grant was offered by VA to provide innovative services to a large underserved and high priority segment of the veteran population. Proposals were submitted by 90 organizations. The awardees were selected and the results sent to the Secretary's office for review. There they have languished for six months now, without action. The closest grantees have come to learning why the names and monies have not been released is this: there were VA budget hearings coming up, implying withholding release for public relations reasons.

I have spoken with a number of VA leaders who are dedicated to providing the best services to veterans; every one without exception has had to navigate this incompetent and intimidating system. It is shameful. And where there is demonstrated harmful transgression with resulting shame, the first step is to break the spell of fear, to speak out. Many more are now coming forward; maybe they will be heard. Maybe, now that the IG's office appears interested in the accounts of brave VA whistleblower employees, they can break the back of this oppressive self-serving system of control and intimidation.