The Department of Veterans Affairs has offered few indications in the last few weeks that it’s willing to move aggressively to fire incompetent or corrupt officials involved in the VA health care scandal, and so far is keeping Congress in the dark about its plans.
These signs are leading some to worry that few officials will be punished for the scandal that left thousands of veterans waiting months or even years for health care appointments.
In late July, the VA announced that it might discipline six officials, but it declined to name them, and indicated that only two of them may be fired.
That vague announcement prompted House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) to ask the VA’s Office of Inspector General for details about these six officials. But as of Monday, the IG had yet to respond to Miller’s July 31 letter, according to a House aide.
Miller also asked new VA Secretary Robert McDonald on July 30 for a weekly update on all disciplinary actions taken against VA officials, something that Miller asked for earlier in the summer.
“I requested that the VA begin providing the committee with weekly updates on all adverse employment actions being initiated against VA employees, officials and contractors,” Miller wrote. “I requested that the first production of such information be provided to the committee by Friday, June 6, 2014. To date, we have received no information regarding this request.”
Miller’s letter asked for weekly updates to begin on August 8, but the House aide said the VA has yet to comply.
The slow start to the firing process comes despite recent evidence that many VA officials were involved in the scandal. In late July, Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) said she learned that more than half of the employees surveyed were told to manipulate veterans’ health care wait times in Central Alabama, and that one doctor manipulated 1,200 patient records to pretend tests were done that never took place.
Roby and Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) have both accused VA officials of lying to them directly about the scandal.
Despite these and other problems, VA officials won a few major concessions in the VA reform bill, which Obama signed into law last week. That law allows the VA to start an expedited process of firing officials, but unlike a tougher House version, it gives VA employees access to a 21-day appeals process.
McDonald has led the VA for nearly two weeks, but so far has not made any detailed announcements that he intends to use this new authority. A House aide told TheBlaze Monday that McDonald will only succeed in changing the culture of the VA if he is “willing to liberally use the expanded firing authority included in the new law.”
In his first speech as secretary over the weekend, McDonald generally acknowledged “there will be accountability” for inept or corrupt officials. But he also went out of his way to praise the many VA officials who are trying to do good work at the department.
“Bottom line — there are good people there,” he said in his prepared remarks. “They care about serving Veterans, and they are working hard to fix that system so they can provide superior service to veterans.”
“There are over 340,000 employees at VA, many veterans themselves,” he said. “I’m confident that the vast, vast majority of our employees understand our non-negotiable commitment is to put outcomes for Veterans at the center of everything we do.”
The new law also spared VA officials the punishment of foregoing bonuses. The House passed one bill that would have cut bonuses for two years, but the final bill caps those bonuses at $360 million per year — just a 10 percent reduction from the $400 million the VA has been handing out annually.
Read Miller’s letter to McDonald here: