On a cold day in February of 2013, veterans nurse Kathi Dahl sat before a Congressional committee in Washington, D.C. to sound the alarm.
Nervous, but assured, Kathi recalled the persistent Legionnaire’s disease outbreak that gripped the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center where she works. She detailed serious concerns for the veterans and employees who rely on the facility every day. And she urged that something be done to stop it.
At a time when on one else wanted to talk about management's failure to announce and remediate the outbreak, Kathi stepped forward to demand action.
Her testimony was not without its risks. Retaliation against employees who blow the whistle on threats to patient care is common at VA, and Kathi knew her job could be on the line. Before departing for Washington, a manager suggested she skirt her responsibility and ‘get sick’ in order to keep from testifying. The threat was clear, but Kathi would not be deterred.
"It is my duty and privilege to ensure that all our veterans and employees are provided a safe environment. If I didn't stand up and expose mismanagement of this outbreak, who would?" - Kathi Dahl
Kathi is what real VA accountability looks like. In the face of major crises, everyday issues on the job, and everything in between, employees like Kathi raise their voices and expose the inconvenient truth. They challenge failing processes and look for ways to improve service delivery; and they do it with integrity. More than 110,000 frontline VA employees are veterans themselves, and all of them take seriously their mission to care for those who have borne the battle for our country.
But recent proposals by a group of extreme lawmakers is set to undermine the ability of employees like Kathi to blow the whistle. Cloaked in the thin disguise of "accountability," bills by Rep. Jeff Miller and Sen. Marco Rubio (H.R. 1994 and S. 1082) would make every VA employee at-will, meaning they can be fired at the drop of a hat with no meaningful appeal rights.
Rather than rooting out the bad apples, this legislation would have the exact opposite effect: giving crooked managers the ability to fire anyone who threatens to expose threats to veterans care.
When she first heard about the proposal, Kathi wasn't fooled for a second:
“As a peer it is my responsibility to hold my coworkers accountable, and I do every day. We don’t need legislation to blunt the input of frontline workers - we need to empower them. This legislation is only stealing away the little rights employees have.”
Fortunately, there is a better way to hold bad actors accountable without discouraging whistleblowers from coming forward. The Department of Veterans Affairs Equitable Employee Accountability Act of 2015 (S. 1856), introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, would strengthen whistleblower protections, improve management performance, secure the safety of veterans and employees, and increase oversight of VA health care through regular reporting to Congress.
Unlike the slash-and-burn, extremist proposals being advocated by Rep. Miller and Sen. Rubio, S. 1856 would protect brave whistleblowers like Kathi and ensure that anyone who threatens veterans care is removed immediately.