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VA secretary blows off John McCain after promising to work with Congress

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald, center, speaks while surrounded by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, left, R-Fla., Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and Kathleen Fogarty, Director of the James A. Haley Medical Center during a news conference after a visit to the James A. Haley Medical Center, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. McDonald also met with veterans while touring the facility. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Over the summer, incoming Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald promised to discipline officials involved in the scandal that denied thousands of veterans health care services, and promised to work closely with Congress to fix the broken VA.

Three months later, those two pledges have gone unfulfilled — McDonald has threatened to fire just a handful of people, and has let some of them escape into early retirement.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald, center, is ignoring questions from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about why VA officials involved in the health care scandal have not been fired, and why many are still on unpaid leave. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

And on Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), arguably the Senate's most prominent veteran, accused McDonald of ignoring his requests for information about progress made in reforming the VA.

In September, McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote a letter to McDonald to ask why no one has been fired, and about the implementation of a health care card for veterans to use outside the VA system. On Thursday, McCain and Flake said they are surprised and disappointed that they've received nothing in response.

"We are extremely disappointed in this lack of a timely response after the positive meeting we had and the assurances you gave us during your confirmation process," they wrote Thursday.

That's a far cry from McDonald's pledge to stay in close contact with Congress as he tried to reform the VA. "I will continue to partner with you, members of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, others in Congress, government agencies, Veterans Service Organizations, and other stakeholders," McDonald told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on July 22.

McCain and Flake wrote that while Congress approved legislation allowing McDonald to quickly fire bad actors at the VA, the VA is so far allowing people to retire instead of making them face a dismissal.

"Recent news reports have stated, in fact, that the VA is allowing senior employees to retire in lieu of being dismissed," they wrote. "As you know, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act specifically includes provisions that enable swift accountability for senior leaders."

"It, therefore, appears that the law, which the president signed on August 7 of this year, is being ignored," they wrote.

So far, two officials who have been "proposed for removal" have been allowed to resign quietly. In addition, one official who tried to hush up an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Pittsburgh was promoted this week.

The two senators also asked why Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix VA Health Care system, continues to remain on paid administrative leave.

"Ms. Helman and other senior leaders collected huge bonuses for the timely delivery of health care to veterans, many of whom died while awaiting care after being placed on secret waiting lists," they wrote. "This is unacceptable."

The Concerned Veterans for America has set up a clock to track how long Helman has been on administrative leave with pay. As of Thursday, it's been 175 days.

Read the newest letter from McCain and Flake here:

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