As COVID-19 opens more doors to fraud, whistleblowers need further protections

by Nick Younger, Communications Associate

Published on February 10, 2021

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As COVID-19 opens more doors to fraud, whistleblowers need further protections

Over the course of the last year, Congress has allocated trillions upon trillions in federal funding to combat the global Covid-19 pandemic. This unprecedented amount of funding presents enormous opportunities for waste, fraud and abuse; past experience with national emergencies teaches us that some will attempt to profit from others’ misfortune and divert large sums away from the coronavirus response. Those with original information about these crimes can help stop them. COVID-19 and other healthcare whistleblowers need further protections to reduce the risk of coming forward.

With a significant amount of funding going to COVID-19 bailout funds, vaccine and testing rollouts, fraud becomes more likely due to increased opportunities coupled with financial and public pressure to succeed. Even before the pandemic, millions from a U.S. fund earmarked for public health emergencies were used to pay for unrelated projects, according to the findings of an HHS investigation into a whistleblower complaint. Since the pandemic began, the National Center for Disaster Fraud has received more than 76,000 tips concerning Covid-19 related fraud and the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged its first fraud case on March 25. As of October 15th, the DOJ reported it had:

  • filed criminal charges in 33 cases across the country involving scam vaccines, treatments, or testing or price gouging in the sale of scarce medical supplies;
  • initiated civil actions in 11 cases to enjoin fraudulent coronavirus schemes targeting consumers, including cases against defendants marketing ozone gas, silver-ion solution, and bleach-based solution as treatments; and
  • charged 65 defendants in 50 separate cases to date that relate to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  The total intended loss to the PPP in those cases is more than $227 million.

This issue is not endemic solely to the United States. In South Africa, an investigation by Corruption Watch of over 100 whistleblower reports revealed widespread allegations of theft of COVID-19 unemployment benefits. The report also claims that employers bribed inspectors to look the other way while employers stole benefits.

Additionally, the pandemic has put pressure on companies and governments to provide more adequate care for employees and enforce COVID-19 safety protocols – a task many have not accomplished. The.U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has received thousands upon thousands of complaints on both the federal and state level over the past year.

In the United Kingdom, almost half of COVID whistleblower reports to the UK independent health and safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, are concerned with the failures of employers to implement social distancing rules, an analysis of the complaints revealed.

However, when whistleblowers do speak out, they can suffer retribution. According to a National Employment Law Project paper, from March to August 2020, 1,744 whistleblowers reported retaliation to OSHA. And across the U.S., stories have emerged of workplace retaliation. In spring 2020, Los Angeles charge nurse, Jhonna Porter, was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the hospital she worked at while her hospital wing abruptly shifted to a COVID-19 wing without the nurses’ knowledge. She was suspended without pay, pending termination, before her story gained national prominence, prompting her reinstatement.

In Colorado, whistleblowers alleged that Denver Health retaliated against them for speaking out against racism and to the media about their COVID-19 experiences. And in Florida, data scientist Rebekah Jones was asked by supervisors to alter state COVID-19 data in order to show a lessened impact of the virus and refused. She was retaliated against for coming forward with her information, experiencing harassment, isolation at work, and even police raids of her apartment.

These stories make clear the necessity of strengthening whistleblower protections so frontline, healthcare, and other employees can safely make their disclosures about economic fraud and occupational safety threats. The COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act, reintroduced in February 2021 in the 117th Congress, looks to provide protected avenues for whistleblowers to safely report wrongdoing regarding the misuse of funds.

The National Whistleblower Center supports this bill and also urges Congress to strengthen workplace safety laws such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) whistleblower laws in order to protect those who file complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As COVID-19 opens more doors to fraud, waste, and abuse, whistleblowers are critical to accountability – and they need our protection.

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