Nation & World

Whistleblowers at hearing decry Department of Veteran Affairs tactics

Iowa City VA employee among those before Congress

Jeff Dettbarn, a VA radiology technician, stands Oct. 2, 2018, outside the Iowa City Federal Building. He testified this week before a U.S. House panel overseeing the Veterans Affairs department. (The Gazette)
Jeff Dettbarn, a VA radiology technician, stands Oct. 2, 2018, outside the Iowa City Federal Building. He testified this week before a U.S. House panel overseeing the Veterans Affairs department. (The Gazette)

WASHINGTON — A day before Minu Aghevli testified to a U.S. House panel hearing about Department of Veterans Affairs misconduct, she received a thick packet of documents that shook her life.

It amounted to a pink slip more than 170 pages, including about 140 pages outlining reasons VA plans to fire her, according to Kevin Owen, her lawyer. The packet arrived Monday. She testified Tuesday.

Aghevli, 42, is a Washington native who has spent her entire 20-year career with VA. She is a clinical psychologist with an opioid treatment program in Baltimore.

But the moniker that matters now for her is VA whistleblower. Aghevli has made disclosures she said led officials to dismiss her, despite her honors for customer service.

Aghevli’s allegations are serious. They include phony-wait-list assertions of the type that have bedeviled VA since it was consumed by a scandal that broke in 2014. She also accused department officials of lying to Congress.

“In order to reduce the wait list, I was instructed to improperly remove veterans from the electronic wait list by scheduling fake appointments for them in an imaginary clinic,” she told the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations. “This clinic was not tied to any provider or location, nor did it actually correspond to any real visits. ... The veterans scheduled for these fictitious appointments were not actually receiving VA care.”

When lawmakers demanded information about VA wait lists in September 2015, she said, “the VA deliberately sent these incorrect numbers to Congress.”

Aghevli was not alone in making allegations about VA misconduct.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

One of those who testified is Jeffery Dettbarn, an Iowa City VA Medical Center employee who told his story to The Gazette last October.

In his congressional testimony, Dettbarn said he had an “unblemished record before blowing the whistle on the improper mass cancellation of what turned out to be tens of thousands of radiology orders.”

The retaliation against him, he said, is a “banishment” from patient care as a radiologic technologist that began in July 2017 and continues.

“My current situation is unbearable. ... I am forced to forgo about one-third of my salary” because it no longer includes on-call pay. “But worst of all,” he added, “the VA won’t let me care for veterans.”

Dettbarn said VA has attempted to fire him and also filed “bogus complaints to my licensing agencies ... All these allegations were unfounded, but these attacks are incredibly damaging and threaten my professional livelihood.”

Only whistleblowers and their advocates testified at the two-day hearing, but VA officials are expected to be invited to a later hearing.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a letter expressed his disappointment that department officials were not included.

“When the committee holds a hearing to air criticisms of the Department, while simultaneously preventing the Department from participating to offer context and defend itself,” he wrote, “the Committee’s efforts risk appearing more like a political news conference than a hearing aimed at a balanced look at serious issues.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.