WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) stressed the urgent need to address rampant problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing entitled, “Improving VA Accountability: Examining First-Hand Accounts of Department of Veterans Affairs Whistleblowers.” 

The Iowa Senator asked about viable alternatives for veterans who do not feel they are receiving timely or adequate mental health care at their local VA, and questioned witnesses on whether they believed the VA takes seriously ideas for reform, implementation of Inspector General (IG) recommendations, or recommendations from staff to improve services for veterans. 

During the hearing, Ernst emphasized: “This is an issue I am extremely passionate about and I think today’s hearing is just reemphasizing to me that we have a corrupt and broken VA system. And when I hear that supervisors, other workers, are more concerned about their own jobs than they are about the veterans – we have an issue. We have an issue, folks, that needs to be fixed and I don’t know how many hearings we’re gonna have until we get to actually addressing the situation. I hear a lot of talk but we need to figure this out.” While talking with the whistleblowers, Ernst also stressed the need to hold the VA’s feet to the fire.  

Earlier this year, Senator Ernst introduced the Prioritizing Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care Act. This legislation provides an option for veterans to receive immediate mental health treatment, until they can receive comprehensive treatment at the VA. It also prioritizes incentives to hire more mental health care professionals at the VA.

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Witnesses on the first panel included Mr. Sean Kirkpatrick of Chicago, IL; Dr. Brandon Coleman, an addiction therapist from the Phoenix VA Health Care System; Mr. Joseph Colon; a credentialing program support from the VA Caribbean Health Care System; and Mr. Shea Wilkes, a licensed clinical social worker from the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center. The second panel’s witnesses included Ms. Carolyn Lerner, Special Counsel from the Office of Special Counsel; Ms. Linda Halliday, Deputy Inspector General from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and Dr. Carolyn Clancy, Chief Medical Officer of the Veterans Health Administration within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

TRANSCRIPT: 

SEN. ERNST: Thank you Mr. Chair. Thank you gentlemen so much for being here today. I will state again and I’ve said this many times in the short eight, nine months that I have been here that this is one of my priorities, is working with veterans and mental health issues, and the first bill I proposed was working with veterans that have mental health and allowing them greater access. And so, I do want to thank you, my condolences on the loss of your, on your brother, Shawn. Very, very sad.

MR. KIRKPATRICK: Thank you.

SEN. ERNST: This is an issue I am extremely passionate about and I think today’s hearing just is reemphasizing to me that we have a corrupt and broken VA system. And when I hear that supervisors, other workers, are more concerned about their own jobs than they are about the veterans – we have an issue. We have an issue, folks, that needs to be fixed and I don’t know how many hearings we’re gonna have until we get to actually addressing the situation. I hear a lot of talk but we need to figure this out.  So again, I’m very passionate about this issue and thank you for coming forward, for being brave and doing the right thing. When it comes to accessing your health records, I just want to state, just for everybody, it doesn’t matter what the reason is. They shouldn’t be accessing your health records. That would be like saying it’s okay for us to access anyone here in the audience, their health records. That’s wrong. It should never ever occur. Never without your authorization. So I just want to emphasize that, it doesn’t matter why.  Mr. Coleman, do you believe there are many alternatives for veterans who feel they are not receiving timely or adequate mental health care at their local VA?

MR. COLEMAN: Thank you for asking me the question, Senator. I don’t know if you read the article by Dave Phillips, front page New York Times on Sunday. It was about the plight of second Battalion 7th Marines who have lost, I believe, it’s 13 members to suicide right after their deployments from Iraq and Afghanistan.  The picture I have in front of me is me and my two Marine Corps sons. Not only am I a former Marine, but I make Marines. But the one on the right is with Two Seven currently. In that article they talk about how many of these veterans came to the VA for health care and were turned away. In one instance, they had a 22 year old female, social worker or whatever that told him that the loss of his buddies was like breaking up with a girlfriend and he just had to get over it.  Well we don’t just get over it and that’s not right. And that’s why I think that these guys and girls, when they come home from years of war, should have the right to go wherever they feel comfortable. We owe it to them to send them anywhere they feel comfortable; if it’s a counselor in another town that they want to go to and they’re gonna open up and talk, then we should allow them to do that because once they’ve committed suicide it’s too late. There are no second chances. 

SEN. ERNST: That’s right. And you do believe that opening up for greater access, whether it’s at the VA or whether it’s through a community clinic, peer to peer supports, those are ways to address it.

MR. COLEMAN: Any of those ma’am. And the reason I believe that is I don’t agree with the number of 22 per day; I think that’s the number of suicides. I believe that’s the number fed to us in the hopes that we’ll all shut up and make it go away. That study was sponsored by the VA. It didn’t include the states of California, Texas, and Illinois. And I don’t know about you folks, but when I was in the Marine Corps, over half of us were from California and Texas. Some of the guys written about in that article that have committed suicide are from California.  They also don’t count the phenomenon of suicide by cop. I’ve had two veterans that were killed by police officers, not saying it’s the police officer’s fault, but they pretend to have a weapon or they pull a weapon. The VA does nothing to report those as suicides. The number of 22 per day is inaccurate and we need an independent third party to come in and do a complete study to show us what the real number is so we know, once the number, we get a real number, then we’ll know what a big deal it is and we can fight it together.

SEN. ERNST: And I use that 22 a day number all the time. I think that is appalling enough, but I think you are probably correct, Mr. Coleman, in your assessment. And for all of you, in your experience, do you believe the VA management takes seriously ideas for reform, the implementation of the IG recommendations, or recommendations from staff members when they are seeking to improve these services at the VA. Do you think they take them seriously?

MR. WILKIES: VA leaders, it’s a system of cronyism that has gone on for so long, and they protect each other. Rules and regulations, often times, they don’t care. They’ll do, they, they use them when it benefits them. And I’ll tell you, and one of the reasons why, is because nothing ever happens to them. Even if you catch them. I’ve put policies in front of folks and I’ve said you can’t do this. This is against the policy. They still do it. But nothing ever happens to them. And you know the IG makes recommendations but they don’t have to hold, I mean-

SEN. ERNST: Who’s holding their feet to the fire?

MR. WILKIES: Right.

SEN. ERNST: Right. We should be doing that. Thank you, Mr. Wilkes. Mr. Colon?

MR. COLON: Excuse me, I already stated that it is great to have all these hearings, all new policies, all new recommendations, and solutions, but since this scandal has broken, since Phoenix, we have not held one person accountable for any wrong doing at the VA as far as whistleblower retaliation.  The VA, what they do is they report a couple things to the IG, the IG sends it back to the agency to investigate itself, and then they give it to the supervisor. The supervisor already knows who the whistleblower is.  So I always truly believe is that you cannot police yourself. Its not the way, the solution you should do it. Like I said the key component that everything is failing to make the VA better is new service for our veterans is start holding people accountable. 

SEN. ERNST: Very good. Well now my time is up, do you have any other comments? Please.

MR. KIRKPATRICK: If I may, with regards to that, I know, you know the people who seem to have been responsible for retaliating against my brother as far as I’m aware are still employed at the VA. I don’t know if that’s pending investigation, but that’s unacceptable. 

SEN. ERNST: It is unacceptable. 

MR. KIRKPATRICK: And that is Dr. David Houlihan. And the human resources person, David Decant. 

SEN. ERNST: Thank you, again, my condolences. Mr. Coleman, do you have any closing thoughts very quickly?

MR. COLEMAN: Ma’am really quickly I was just gonna say, the retaliation investigations, I was removed on hearsay. I’ve been, I was on paid administrative leave for 206 days until I was ordered back into the same retaliatory environment on August 17th, which I refused to go until it was safe. So, if they’re able to remove me on hearsay, whereas we have a sworn affidavit from the HR chief, showing that the Director held this meeting to propose to fire me on January 13th, and he’s still showing up to work every day. I love my job helping vets get clean and sober. I would do it for free, and they removed me from that, or took me out of that position, to investigate hearsay which was proven untrue in February.

SEN. ERNST: Thank you again, gentleman. Thank you, Mr. Chair.   

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