How One Woman Helped Change the VA

Categories: VA

In 2011, Dr. Michelle Washington went before Congress to sound the alarm about a shortage of VA doctors able to treat troops returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Washington, who coordinates PTSD services at the Wilmington VA Medical Center, said extended wait times for new appointments meant veterans were suffering longer and sometimes opting to forgo treatment altogether.

“Due to chronic short staffing at my facility and the inability to manage my patients’ appointments based on their individual need, I am frequently frustrated in my ability to provide that care,” she testified.

As a direct result of her testimony, the Obama administration ordered the VA to hire 1,600 new mental health professionals to improve access to care for veterans seeking mental health services. This has led to faster appointments and better quality treatment for the hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from mental illnesses such as PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Unfortunately, Dr. Washington faced retaliation from hospital managers for testifying before Congress. She was stripped of some of her duties as a psychologist and given her first-ever unsatisfactory performance review.

As an AFGE member, Dr. Washington turned to the union for help. AFGE representatives filed charges against the agency to roll back the retaliatory actions taken against her, allowing her to continue to serve veterans without fear of reprisal.

AFGE representatives were able to take on the VA and protect Dr. Washington thanks to a congressionally mandated tool known as official time.

Through official time, federal employees who are union representatives are given the time to represent their coworkers in workplace grievances and fight for improved working conditions at the job site.

Official time gives employees like Dr. Washington the ability to expose mismanagement and wrongdoing at federal agencies – issues that otherwise would never have come to light. Congress members rely on brave whistleblowers like Dr. Washington to serve as their eyes and ears on the ground, providing critical oversight of federal programs and services and ensuring taxpayer dollars aren’t wasted.

Without official time, Congress would have remained in the dark about many of the problems raised by Dr. Washington and other AFGE members plaguing the VA health care system. Thanks to them, the VA is cleaning up its act and bringing on new doctors, nurses and support staff to ensure veterans get timely access to quality patient care. 

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