Newly minted Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Thursday brushed aside a question about how many VA officials involved in the health care scandal have been fired, and said that information is “not relevant.”
“That’s not relevant,” McDonald told reporters Thursday, according to the Associated Press. “I mean, what’s relevant is what’s happened here in Memphis.”
McDonald also said he wants to ensure any VA officials who are disciplined are allowed due process. “You’ve got to treat that person with respect,” he said. “They have to be allowed a certain due process that’s allowed them by law or by statute or by policy.”
He said he would not reveal to reporters any information about the names of VA officials who are being considered for disciplinary action, but added that he would hold people accountable and do that “as quickly as we possibly can.”
Still, McDonald has given the impression in his first two weeks on the job that he may be less interested in firing VA officials than many had hoped. He has said on a few occasions that the VA is filled with “good people.”
“Here’s what I’m learning,” he said Wednesday. “We have good people at VA — many of them veterans. They are passionate about serving veterans, and they are working hard to fix our system so they can provide superior service. So, we’re on their team, and they’ve got our support.”
And in a list of 17 steps he has taken so far, he did not mention anything about firing officials.
His comments are known to be causing some worry among veterans groups, many of whom pushed for tough legislation in Congress to punish officials involved in the delays that thousands of veterans faced getting access to health care, and the ensuing coverup.
In the end, Congress approved an expedited disciplinary process that gives VA employees access to an appeals process. But so far, McDonald has not said publicly whether he would use that process at all.
In late July, the VA said it is considering disciplining six employees, but is only looking at firing two of them. That low number contrasts sharply with evidence dug up by reporters and congressional investigators, which indicates that many more VA officials all around the country worked to delay health care access, covered up those delays, and even harassed people who tried to blow the whistle on the scheme.