Last week, it was revealed that litigation was filed against the Food and Drug Administration for conducting secret monitoring and surveillance activities of its own employees, scientists, and doctors. Many personal employee files and e-mails were gathered by the FDA in response to communications with Congress about unsafe medical practices and devices, including a faulty breast cancer-screening device. The agency began monitoring its employees back in January 2009, when it appeared that several of them were putting together whistleblower complaints and communicating with congressional staffers. The FDA claimed that the secret monitoring program was enacted to root out employees who were improperly disclosing confidential information. In response, the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services observed that there was no evidence of criminal conduct by the employees and he declined to investigate the matter. The IG also concluded that the employees did have the legal right to inform Congress about the dangers of the deficient programs. For all intents and purposes, it looks as if the employees were doing their jobs in order to make the public aware of potential hazards.
This revelation will undoubtedly have a negative impact on whistleblowers that are trying to decide whether they should come forward and expose real fraud within the health care system. The FDA has the responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of the general public. If they become involved in covering up unsafe practices and devices, who can the average American trust? According to the FDA’s mission statement, it is “responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.” To live up to this statement, the agency should not be harassing the privacy of its employees, who were doing the right thing by informing the Obama Administration and members of Congress about medical dangers.
It has been proven that whistleblowers are an effective tool in combating fraud committed against the government and, effectively, the American taxpayers. Dissension within the FDA over reporting practices and privacy violations will only aid those groups that are willing to engage in illegal and fraudulent activities. In addition to accepting the assistance provided by whistleblowers, the FDA also needs to hold itself to a higher standard that both protects the whistleblower from retaliation and carries out the mission it was created to perform. The stakes are too high when it comes not only to taxpayer dollars, but also to America’s health.