Radiology technologist Jeff Dettbarn, alleges thousands of tests at the Iowa City VA were improperly canceled, potentially risking veterans’ lives. USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Three Veterans Affairs health care professionals who reported patient care issues say the agency continues to try to silence them, jeopardizing veterans and undercutting a key Trump promise of whistleblower protection.

They work at different sites – in the Phoenix area, Baltimore, and Iowa City, Iowa – yet the VA response has been similar. All were stripped of assigned patient-care and oversight duties, and they suspect VA managers are retaliating against them for speaking out, and sidelining them to prevent them from discovering or disclosing any more problems with veteran health care.

In exclusive interviews with USA TODAY, their assertions contradict proclamations by agency leaders and President Donald Trump that VA employees who disclose wrongdoing at the agency are being celebrated and not scorned.

“The VA is two-faced: What it says it does and what it actually does are two entirely different things,” said Katherine Mitchell, a physician who reported shortfalls in care at the Phoenix VA that earned her a federal “Public Servant of the Year Award” in 2014.

Mitchell is scheduled to testify at a congressional hearing Tuesday examining the treatment of whistleblowers at the VA. She will be joined by Iowa City CT technologist Jeffrey Dettbarn, who blew the whistle on mass-cancellations of diagnostic test orders, and Baltimore VA psychologist Minu Aghevli, who reported veterans had been removed improperly from wait lists for opioid-addiction treatment.

Mitchell said the retaliation against her and others who speak out sends a signal to other employees to keep their mouths shut and “jeopardizes the health and safety of every veteran in the system.”

“Whistleblowers who are brave enough to report problems serve as a vital safety net for veterans,” she said. “If people can’t identify problems, veterans will suffer and die. That’s what it boils down to.”

Trump’s accountability order

Trump signed an executive order creating a VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection and then a law making it permanent in 2017. Early reviews were promising – within several months, the office had delayed disciplinary actions against 70 VA employees who disclosed alleged wrongdoing.

But the VA inspector general has since launched a wide-ranging investigation of the office’s handling of whistleblower cases and reports of problems.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report last July that said the office allowed officials accused of wrongdoing or retaliation to be involved in investigations of the accusations – calling into question their independence and findings. And leadership at the office has turned over multiple times, causing confusion and disruption.

Trump signs law: VA bill to protect whistleblowers, expedite firing of problem workers