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VA official accused of lying to Congress placed on administrative leave

Robert McDonald, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, talks to delegates of the AMVETS National Convention at the Cannon Center for Performing Arts in Memphis, Tenn. Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Jim Weber) AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Jim Weber

A senior Veterans Affairs official accused of lying to a member of Congress has been placed on administrative, along with another top official at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System.

CAVHCS Director James Talton was placed on leave, along with Chief of Staff Dr. Cliff Robinson.

Robert McDonald, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has been slow to fire VA employees, but two top officials in Alabama have been placed on administrative leave. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Jim Weber)

VA Southeast Network Director Charles Sepich said the move "signals Alabama veterans that they can be confident in the quality of their VA health care." He said putting them on administrative leave will "allow for a thorough and unbiased" investigation.

Earlier this year, Talton told Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) that officials involved in covering up the long wait times for health care at CAVHCS had been fired. But an angry Roby later went to the House floor to complain that Talton lied to her, since no one had been removed.

On Thursday, Roby praised the decision to remove Talton while the Alabama office is investigated further.

"Leadership starts at the top, and this change in senior management at CAVHCS was sorely needed," she said. "I applaud the VA for taking decisive action. Our local system is infested with a culture of complacency when it should in fact be home to a culture of excellence."

The VA's system in Alabama was one of the worst run systems in the country. According to the VA's own data, veterans waited an average of 51.5 days for an appointment, when the national average was 27.4, according to numbers cited by Yellowhammer News.

In her floor remarks, Roby cited other problems, including the decision of a pulmonologist to manipulate more than 1,200 patient records. THe pulmonologist was never punished for that action.

She said CAVHCS also lost 900 x-ray tests over a five year period.

Earlier this week, the Montgomery Advertiser reported that a CAVHCS employee took a patient to a crack house to buy drugs — that employee is still working.

The disciplinary process didn't start until after an August 16 story ran about the visit to the crack house, and after the House Veterans' Affairs Committee asked about it in an August 18 letter.

While Roby said placing the two officials is a good "first step," the VA has generally been slow to fire or discipline employees involved in the nationwide health care scandal. A key official in Phoenix has been on paid administrative leave for more than 100 days, and VA Secretary Robert McDonald has indicated that disciplining VA employees "doesn't automatically" mean they will be fired.

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