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VA challenged on handling of whistleblowing

By KEVIN FREKING Associated Press

WASHINGTON - A top federal investigator has identified "a troubling pattern of deficient patient care" at Veterans Affairs facilities around the country that she says was pointed out by whistleblowers but downplayed by the department.

The problems went far beyond the extraordinarily long wait time for some appointments - and the attempts to cover them up - that has put the department under intense scrutiny.

In a letter Monday to President Barack Obama, Carolyn Lerner of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel cited canceled appointments with no follow up, drinking water contaminated with the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease and improper handling of surgical equipment and supplies. One veteran was admitted to a long-term mental health facility but didn't get a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation for eight years.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said he had launched a departmental review due to be completed within 14 days. "I am deeply disappointed not only in the substantiation of allegations raised by whistleblowers, but also in the failures within VA to take whistleblower complaints seriously," he said in a statement.

Lerner said the VA consistently acknowledges problems but says the quality of patient care is not affected, which she referred to as "the VA's typical harmless error approach."

"This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans," Lerner wrote to Obama. "As a result, veterans' health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk."

Complaints about a lack of access to VA health care have prompted a national outcry that led to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation.

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