A Pennsylvania Veteran Affairs hospital plagued by whistleblower allegations of wrongdoing has emailed a memo to all employees instructing them not to speak with federal investigators or comply with subpoenas, a violation of a U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.
Instead, the 750 employees of the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona are instructed to refer all inquiries from numerous open investigations — including the House of Representatives — to Director Sigrid Andrew, the memo states.
"Employees are not to respond to a subpoena to appear for testimony and/or to provide any agency document to include but not limited to copies of the Veteran’s protected health information," reads the memo, dated last month. It goes on to explain that any search warrant would be conducted by VA police.
Agencies currently conducting various investigations include the Office of Special Counsel, Dept. of Health and Human Services, House Veteran Affairs Committee, the Government Accountability Office, the VA Inspector General, and the newly created Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.
Whistleblower James DeNofrio has since forwarded a copy of the email to the House VA Committee, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), and the Government Accountability Office. DeNofrio, an Army veteran who is the business administrator for the Dept. of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services, has an open case of reprisal for alerting the VA Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel to a physician who was allegedly working while impaired and failing his physician credentialing standards but still allowed to see patients from 2013 to 2015.
DeNofrio also complained that 400 veterans were on a waiting list that was so extensive, seven of the service members committed suicide when they couldn’t get help.
Other whistleblowers have open cases as well.
"That is their attempt to try and quash everything," said Andrew Scherzinger, president of AFGE Local 1862, a union of VA employees. "We can't refuse to talk to people, especially in an official investigation like that. I think this is something that Congress should look at."
5 U.S. Code 2302, which regulates federal agencies and employees, states that employees have obligations and rights regarding "communications to Congress, the reporting to an Inspector General of a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety, or any other whistleblower protection."
This section was strengthened by the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, which stated: "This subsection shall not be construed to authorize the withholding of information from Congress."
The VA responded to an inquiry by The Daily Wire by saying the memo was meant to protect patient confidentiality during an ongoing review by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF).
"The premise of your inquiry is false," stated VA Public Affairs Officer Andrea Young. "The email was prompted by an accreditation review … which recommended we clearly outline the policy for employees in order to comply with CARF standards."
However, CARF does not survey the medical portion of the hospital. Their reviews are limited to employment and community services and a fraction of the VA's employees, DeNofrio said.
The hospital only receives four CARF accreditations and they have already been completed, according to CARF’s website.
"I do not believe that the intent of the email is to protect employees from inadvertently releasing veterans' private health information. Nor do I believe that this email was simply prompted by a CARF review as most of the medical center's programs are not CARF accredited," DeNofrio said. "What is very troubling is that this email appears to direct all Altoona VA federal employees not to cooperate with federal law enforcement, legal oversight authorities like the Special Counsel, federal judges, or Congress.
"This is even more disturbing when you learn that over the past four years there have been many ongoing federal and congressional investigations into whistleblower disclosures here at Altoona as well as at least three ongoing judicial proceedings including mine related to alleged whistleblower retaliation," DeNofrio said.
After DeNofrio’s complaints made it up the chain, he discovered that his medical records were uploaded onto a server in violation of HIPAA laws. Altoona executives used portions of DeNofrio’s privileged file against him as reasons to deny promotions, according to documents filed with the Merit System Protection Board, a type of judicial proceeding for employees seeking relief. The VA later released a memo that named 16 people — including officials from the VA’s Central Office in Washington, D.C. — who accessed his records
Nearly 5,000 pages of protected documents were also uploaded that included DeNofrio’s whistleblower reports, evidence sent to the VA Inspector General and Congress to build his whistleblower cases and Social Security information belonging to DeNofrio and other veterans.
In a March 18 letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin, DeNofrio outlined the scenario and said VA officials placed a false diagnosis of a cognitive disorder in his online VA medical records. He complained to the Inspector General, but the agency refused to investigate, a memo showed.
VA District Director Michael Adelman responded on April 20 with a letter that said in part, "All information has been removed from the SharePoint (database) and education has been provided regarding the placement on sensitive information on the SharePoint site. … We are notifying you so you can choose to take appropriate steps to protect yourself against identity theft."
Adelman closed by saying the "VA takes our obligation to honor and serve America’s veterans very seriously. We believe it is important for you to be fully informed of any potential risk to you and apologize for any inconvenience or concern this situation may cause."