They told me the truth…
It was a frustrating day to say the least. It was June 8, 2014, and for the last 48 hours my staff and I had been trying to reach James Talton, the then-Director of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS).
That past Friday, Talton met with me in my Montgomery office about the mounting reports of egregious patient wait time manipulation, and he led me to believe action had been taken to remove the employees responsible. In an interview with The Advertiser’s Mary Troyan, I relayed the good news that bad actors at the VA were being held accountable. The story ran front page on Sunday, and almost immediately we began getting messages and phone calls - anonymous tips saying this was bogus.
Unable to reach the director, I finally picked up the phone and called the CAVHCS switchboard, hoping someone could offer an explanation. I’ve said it before, but if a Member of Congress can’t get a straight answer from the VA, imagine what our veterans go through every day.
I ended up being connected with two senior CAVHCS administrators, who, after checking and double checking, confirmed to me that no one had been fired from CAVHCS. I was disappointed to learn I had been misled by the director, but so grateful to finally be speaking with individuals who were telling me the truth.
When this information was reported, the effects were far-reaching. Many other whistleblowers began contacting my office with information on problems within the system. While keeping their identities confidential, my staff and I worked with these individuals to expose numerous instances of wrongdoing. Just to name a few:
- At least 900 X-Rays – some showing malignancies – went missing for many months while administrators moved to cover it up;
- A VA pulmonologist was caught manipulating more than 1,200 patient records and then received a “satisfactory” review;
- A worker took a recovering veteran patient to a crack house, where he provided drugs and prostitutes all to extort the patient’s VA payments. When caught, the worker wasn’t fired.
These stories and many others were crucial to exposing the true extent of the problems within the Central Alabama VA. But, none of them would have been possible without information from whistleblowers, starting with the two brave individuals who answered my phone call that day.
Their names are Sheila Meuse and Richard Tremaine. My staff and I carefully kept their identities confidential these many months, but recently they chose to come forward in an Advertiser feature story because they say they are being systematically punished for speaking the truth.
Retaliation toward whistleblowers is unacceptable, and I am currently working with my colleagues here in Congress to move legislation that would offer increased protections to those in the VA who speak out.
The bottom line is this: when nobody at the VA could give me a straight answer, these individuals did. They told me the truth about the cover-ups that were happening at the VA, and for that they should be rewarded - not punished or marginalized. They did so because they love their country and care deeply for those who have served it. My staff and I are proud to have worked with them.
You should know that I’m not done working to clean up the VA. There is much more to come, so stay tuned.