Emotional testimony last month from whistleblowers at a number of VA hospitals across the country pushed two U.S. Senators to introduce a law to protect them from workplace reprisal. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) on Thursday announced the “Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act,” named after a psychologist at the Tomah VA hospital, who was fired after trying to come forward about the problems related to prescription abuse.
The retaliation against Kirkpatrick was so severe, he took his own life on the day he was terminated at Tomah.
On Sept. 22, the committee held a hearing, “Improving VA Accountability: First-Hand Accounts of Department of Veterans Affairs Whistleblowers,” at which members heard powerful testimony from VA whistleblowers, including Dr. Kirkpatrick’s brother, Sean Kirkpatrick. The Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act implements reforms to enhance whistleblower protections throughout the government, ensures that retaliators are held accountable, and safeguards the medical records of VA employees who also are veterans.
“The powerful testimony our committee heard from VA whistleblowers showed that the VA has a serious cultural problem when it comes to whistleblower retaliation,” Johnson said. “This legislation is directed at providing VA whistleblowers protection to help prevent tragedies like the suicide of Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick. Congress must not stand by while executive branch agencies retaliate against good people who are just trying to do the right thing. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the committee and in the Senate to ensure that these important reforms are enacted.”
“We have heard too many stories of federal employees getting punished for doing the right thing and speaking up about misconduct or mismanagement,” said Ayotte. “This bill will put in place needed protections across the federal government and specifically at the VA while sending a clear message that retaliating against whistleblowers is unacceptable and has serious consequences.”
According to the joint press release from Johnson and Ayotte, the law will prohibit VA employees from being fired for blowing the whistle. In addition, it will give the Office of Special Counsel better access to protect whistleblowers and increase training for management and employees on their rights as whistleblowers.
Perhaps most importantly, the bill will increase criminal penalties for managers who improperly obtain medical records in an effort to retaliate against whistleblowers.
Since 1989, federal employees have had some form of whistleblower protection legislation on the books. In 2012, it was updated and enhanced by Congress.