Technically as of today, not a single person has been fired for the Veterans Affairs wait time scandal from last year. That’s right, it bears repeating: technically, not a single person has been fired for the VA wait time scandal. Sorry, but that point needs to sink in. New VA Secretary Bob McDonald is already taking heat for his handling of whistleblower protections stemming from an April 13th Congressional hearing in which several of the people who helped to expose the scandal testified that they have dealt with harsh repercussions for their actions. Taking the secretary post in December, 2014, McDonald originally said in a February Meet the Press interview that the VA was taking a hard stance in reaction to the scandal and that the agency had fired 60 people. The department immediately corrected that statement afterward, saying that 14 people were actually fired, but 60 received some form of disciplinary action. However, internal documents submitted to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs earlier in the month, and forwarded to the New York Times shows that only 8 people have received some form of discipline. Of that 8, 5 were reprimanded or suspended up to two months, one was forced to retire pending termination, one is pending termination, and one person was actually fired. That person was the director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital, Sharon Helman, who was actually fired for “receiving inappropriate gifts,” not falsifying wait times. That’s right; technically, not a single person has yet to be fired for the VA wait time scandal.
This revelation does not put McDonald in a good light, especially immediately following his “all talk-little action” handling of whistleblower protections. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave McDonald a not-so coveted, “Four Pinocchios” for “wildly inflating his firing statistics” following the February interview. Furthermore, it leads one to question whether or not he thinks people are indifferent enough to let the aftermath of the scandal simply blow over, or if he thinks people are stupid enough to trust his rhetoric without any follow-up. In a statement responding to the New York Times’ disclosure, the department did not dispute the numbers, but added that over 100 employees are facing some kind of discipline. Predictably, the statement goes on to read, “VA is committed to holding employees accountable for misconduct.” Okay sure, as Representative Kathleen Rice (D-NY) noted reacting to the April 13th hearing on whistleblower protection said, “It seems to me if you want to send a message that wrongdoers are going to be held accountable; you actually have to hold one accountable.”
Beyond the apparent lack of urgency by McDonald and VA executives to fire employees, some of the blame is on the governmental employment system itself. Current federal employee procedures can mean some employees facing termination can spend up to 2 years appealing to the Merit Systems Protection Board. One Congressman who has expressed his furor over the lack of action is Florida Republican Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Mill introduced legislation Thursday to cut the appeal process to 3 months and make it much easier for the VA secretary to fire nearly anyone in the agency. “Everyone knows accountability is a major problem at the department,” Mr. Miller said, “and right now, VA leaders must work with Congress to solve it.” Despite perhaps making his job easier, McDonald has failed to endorse the measure, claiming instead that he already has this authority, but that he needs to build a solid case prior to firing a VA employee. It is hard to imagine that so few “solid cases” have emerged given the exposure of the largest scandal in the agency’s history. Moreover, if that is the truth, why not just say so in the first place?
Daily Caller – Jonah Bennett
New York Times – Dave Philipps
Washington Post – Emily Wax-Thibodeaux