Employee Profile: Eyana J. Esters
Whistleblowers in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) play a crucial role in the fight to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse in federal health care and social services programs. By informing HHS personnel, contractors, and grantees of their rights when reporting wrongdoing, HHS can maintain the integrity of its programs and save lives.
Eyana J. Esters, the HHS Whistleblower Protection Coordinator, is dedicated to this cause. Eyana joined HHS-OIG in 2015 as a Senior Counsel in the Office of Counsel to the Inspector General (OCIG). She created the HHS Whistleblower Protection Program soon after becoming the Deputy Branch Chief of Operations in 2018.
Eyana started her federal career in 2008 after working for several private law firms. She grew motivated to work in public service during the Obama administration and took her first federal job with the Federal Election Commission as a labor and employment lawyer. A few years later, she was promoted to Assistant General Counsel for Administrative Law, which sparked her enthusiasm for leadership in public service. She then went to work for the United States Air Force as a labor attorney, before coming to HHS-OIG.
Eyana's interest in serving others came from being surrounded by a long line of female health care workers. She grew up in Westchester, New York--right outside of the Bronx--in a multigenerational household. Her parents, three siblings, grandmother, aunt, uncle, and a host of younger cousins and foster children lived with them. In her words, she comes from a strong, supportive, and hardworking family where "giving up was not an option." Her mother was a certified nurses’ aid and a union shop steward for Service Employees International Union 1199, participating in marches on Washington and Capitol Hill. The combination of humble beginnings and strong stock shaped Eyana’s drive to succeed despite any challenges she faced.
One of the first major challenges she faced came as a college student at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) while deciding where to apply to law school. Despite her 3.9 grade point average, the Director of the UMES Honors Program disapproved of her choices and told her that, "Students who graduate from UMES do not go to the top tier law schools that you have selected. You may want to consider whether you are setting your sights too high." Eyana refused to listen to the director, got into four of the five law schools to which she had applied, including her #1 choice, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she then attended. Since then, she has allowed naysaying to motivate her, relying on faith, hard work, determination, and perseverance.
"I’ve always been told that if [I] worked hard, I could allow that to be my motivation for moving forward, even when I heard others say that I can't," said Eyana. Even when she felt like “a fish out of water” at Penn Law, she kept striving to reach her goals. She had to overcome feelings of insecurity and self-doubt her first year. Once she felt more comfortable in her own skin, she began to speak up, reminding herself that she deserved to be at the University, and that she was just as intelligent as her peers. Eyana had to remember her foundational family motto of "giving up and failing is not an option."
Today, Eyana encourages career positivity by counseling others to take control of their personal and professional growth. “After all,” she says, “you just never know what is going to happen and what chess pieces are going to move that will allow for opportunities to flourish in your life.”
Eyana saw this play out when she was given a portfolio of whistleblower cases at HHS-OIG in 2018. Those few cases turned into a blossoming Whistleblower Program. Eyana now wears two hats at HHS-OIG: one as the Deputy Branch Chief of the Operations Team in the OCIG Advice Branch, in which she oversees legal advice related to law enforcement, information access, and money. Her second hat is the HHS Whistleblower Protection Coordinator. As the Coordinator, Eyana conducts outreach and education efforts for HHS employees, grantees, and contractors and educates them about their rights when they make protected disclosures or report fraud, waste, and abuse.
Eyana sees whistleblowers as courageous heroes who put their careers and lives on the line to call truth to power and money. She shared two particularly memorable cases of whistleblowers who have saved millions of taxpayer dollars.
A National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) employee filed an Office of Special Counsel complaint that was referred to the OIG. During the referral audit, it was discovered that NHLBI did not fully comply with federal requirements for awarding and administering other transactions (OTs) during audit period. NHLBI did not adequately document its compliance with applicable federal requirements because its internal controls for awarding and administering OTs were ineffective. As a result, NHLBI could not ensure the proper stewardship of federal funds used to award OTs, including the $71.9 million OIG reviewed. Eyana states, “because of this brave whistleblower’s complaint, two other OIG audits were born. It shows how one whistleblower complaint can have a significant impact on our oversight work.”
Another prominent whistleblower complaint was received in 2018. It alleged that since 2010, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (now the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response) had been misusing money that Congress had intended for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to use for the development of vaccines, drugs and other therapies. The Office of Investigations, in partnership with the Office of Audit Services and OCIG, investigated the matter and found that from 2007 to 2016, the preparedness agency failed to account for $517.8 million in administrative expenditures; and, as recently as 2019, approximately $25 million was taken from biomedical agency and improperly provided to the preparedness agency.
These are just some of the whistleblower cases that have had an impact on OIG’s efforts to uncover fraud, waste and abuse. In addition to overseeing whistleblower referrals from the Office of Special Counsel, Eyana’s team provides hands-on legal support to the Office of Investigations Special Investigations Branch on whistleblower retaliation investigations. Through rigorous outreach to HHS agencies, Eyana’s team has provided over 20 training sessions on whistleblower protections to HHS Operating Divisions and Staff Divisions, the Council on Inspector Generals for Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), and OIG components, with a continuous stream of requests for more. Their hope is that educating employees, grantees, and contractors on these protections will decrease the number of retaliatory incidents, and increase the number of reports of fraud, waste, and abuse made to the OIG.
When she is not offering legal counsel or championing HHS-OIG’s Whistleblower Protection program, Eyana spends her free time with her husband, three kids, one grandson, and one-year-old puppy, Chester Esters. Their favorite family past time is watching movies on Friday nights, during which her two youngest kids debate which movie to watch. In addition, they like to drive up and down the East Coast visiting relatives and take long walks around their neighborhood. The Esters also have an in-house gym, and Eyana is “obsessed” with running on her treadmill and staying fit physically and mentally. One of Eyana’s favorite things to do is to wake up early in the morning, especially in the warmer months, and go outside on her backyard patio to read a book, while drinking coffee or iced tea.
When asked what advice she would give the next generation of potential federal employees, Eyana said, "federal government service is a real opportunity for you to do some good in a small way. It really gives you an opportunity to make an impact, and to do things to better the country for all Americans."
Whistleblowing is a noble decision to undertake, as your actions matter not only to taxpayers, but to the beneficiaries of federal health care programs, whose lives are often at stake.
To learn more about the Whistleblower Program, visit HHS-OIG’s Whistleblower Protection Website: https://oig.hhs.gov/fraud/whistleblower/