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VA Loma Linda workers are uncomfortable reporting misconduct, survey finds

‘Climate review’ comes amid a congressional investigation into allegations of widespread whistleblower retaliation

The main entrance of the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA Medical Center in Loma Linda. (Staff File Photo)
Staff File Photo
The main entrance of the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA Medical Center in Loma Linda. (Staff File Photo)
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A 2023 survey of VA Loma Linda Healthcare System employees shows a large majority of respondents are reluctant to report workplace misconduct because they believe top leadership often fails to address their complaints, the Southern California ɫ̳ Group has learned.

According to a synopsis of the confidential U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection  administered in November, 78% of more than 900 respondents said inaction by management poses a significant barrier to filing grievances.

Just 27% of respondents who reported wrongdoing to VA Loma Linda’s executive leadership team believe their complaints were taken seriously and properly addressed, according to survey results reviewed by SCNG.

Additionally, 40% of respondents believe VA Loma Linda’s executive team makes an effort to encourage whistleblowing, while some workers believe those efforts are superficial. Slightly more than half of the respondents emphasized the need for increased leadership accountability to improve reporting.

VA Loma Linda physicians and nurses had a more positive view of the whistleblower reporting climate compared to nonsupervisory employees, the survey found.

“Veterans nationwide have earned access to the highest quality care and services — period,” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Bost, R-Illinois, said in a statement. “That starts with ensuring that the VA employees who serve them have their best interests in mind and are able to work in a place free from hostility and retaliation.

“The climate survey revealed VA Loma Linda employees do not have faith their local VA leadership will adequately address their concerns,” he said. “That’s a culture problem that the Biden administration needs to fix, immediately.”

The VA is actively working to address issues raised in the climate review through “comprehensive and transparent measures,” Susan Carter, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email. Results of a separate survey in May, completed by 73% of VA Loma Linda employees, are being reviewed and should offer a more accurate and broader perspective, Carter added.

Meanwhile, VA Loma Linda leadership has begun implementing the following to improve the complaint reporting climate:

  • Monthly town halls and service-level staff meetings.
  • Weekly in-person visits alongside department leaders within rotating work areas.
  • Monthly all-employee safety forums.
  • Biweekly “Answering the Call” sessions focused on strengthening organizational excellence by gathering staff to celebrate successes and spread best practices.
  • Addition of an “Ask the Director” link on VA Loma Linda’s internal webpage to directly address staff questions and concerns.

Results from the climate review survey have surfaced as the House Veterans Affairs Committee makes final preparations for a July hearing to address widespread at VA Loma Linda, which has roughly 3,300 employees and serves more than 76,000 veterans.

The committee began VA Loma Linda more than a year ago amid about the employment of grounds department supervisor Martin Robles, who allegedly used frequent racial slurs, required employees to buy him food and drive him to and from work, and then punished those who refused his demands with bad assignments.

A 2021 federal investigation recommended he be fired. However, VA Loma Linda officials instead him.

Sharon L. Sperry of Sedona, Arizona, the mother of Ryan Sperry, a 43-year-old former Marine and irrigation technician who worked for Robles and died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2022, believes his suicide was prompted by years of work-related harassment and retaliation. She is and Robles for $5 million.

Robles, in a September 2023 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Department of Veterans Affairs, alleged Ryan Sperry and co-workers discriminated against him and created a hostile work environment.

Bost, Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia and several bipartisan lawmakers are sponsoring to give the VA authority to quickly discipline poor-performing employees.

Federal watchdogs and advocacy groups also have scrutinized other whistleblower-related controversies at VA Loma Linda.

In 2022, government fact-finders found that VA Loma Linda more than $1 million in patient transportation funding over three years by colluding with ambulance companies, according to a confidential report obtained by SCNG.

Additionally, several patient advocacy organizations determined in 2023 that VA Loma Linda violated the civil liberties of some veterans seeking voluntary mental health evaluations by placing them on involuntary as a precondition for their transportation to a hospital or treatment facility.

Bost sent a May 7 letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis R. McDonough reiterating an earlier request for information about and performance plans for VA Loma Linda employees who have had allegations of serious harassment, relationships with patients, and pharmaceutical theft substantiated by the VA.

“These substantiated allegations are incredibly serious, further, I understand that the individuals in question are likely still employed by VA,” Bost said. “I am concerned that these individuals are still walking VA Loma Linda’s halls, collecting a paycheck, and interacting with our nation’s veterans despite the substantial misconduct against them.”

Obernolte concurs.

“The hostile work environment at VA Loma Linda has led to the loss of numerous committed and respected employees who were important to the success of the VA’s mission, and it has impeded the ability of the staff to provide the timely, high-quality care our veterans have earned,” he said in a statement.

“I strongly urge the VA to discipline VA Loma Linda employees, including leadership and management, who have serious, substantiated allegations against them. Our veterans deserve the highest quality of care, and the people choosing to serve them deserve a productive and safe workplace environment. Anything less is a disservice to both VA employees and the veterans they serve.”

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