New VA Sec Lied About Firing 60 People For Waiting-Time Scandal, At Most Fired 3

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From The NY Times: The nationwide scandal last spring over manipulated wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals led to the ouster of the secretary of veterans affairs and vows from the new leadership that people would be held accountable.

Then in February, the new secretary, Robert A. McDonald, asserted in a nationally televised interview that the department had fired 60 people involved in manipulating wait times to make it appear that veterans were receiving care faster than they were. In fact, the department quickly clarified after that interview, only 14 people had been removed from their jobs, while about 60 others had received lesser punishments.

Now, new internal documents show that the real number of people removed from their jobs is much smaller still: at most, three.

The documents given this month to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, which provided them to The New York Times, show that the department punished a total of eight of its 280,000 employees for involvement in the scandal. One was fired, one retired in lieu of termination, one’s termination is pending, and five were reprimanded or suspended for up to two months.

The only person fired was the director of the Phoenix hospital, Sharon Helman, who technically was removed not for her role in the manipulation of waiting lists but for receiving “inappropriate gifts,” according to the department.

In a statement released Wednesday night, the department did not dispute the numbers released by the committee, but said that more than 100 other employees were facing disciplinary action.

“V.A. is committed to holding employees accountable for misconduct,” the statement said.

But the documents drew expressions of outrage from congressional Republicans and prompted Representative Jeff Miller, Republican of Florida and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to say he will introduce legislation on Thursday to speed the firing process.

“Rather than disciplining bad employees, V.A. often just transfers them to other V.A. facilities or puts them on paid leave for months on end,” Mr. Miller said in a statement.

His measure, called the V.A. Accountability Act, would sharply cut the time allowed for employees to appeal terminations to less than 30 days. The existing rules allow employees facing termination to collect pay while they appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board for federal employees — a process that can last up to two years.

The measure would also lengthen probationary periods for new employees and increase oversight of labor unions in the department.

“Everyone knows accountability is a major problem at the department,” Mr. Miller said, “and right now, V.A. leaders must work with Congress to solve it.”

Mr. McDonald has so far not endorsed Mr. Miller’s bill, saying that he already has the authority required to remove bad employees, but that the department needs time to build cases against those employees.

Congress enacted similar legislation, signed by President Obama in August, that made it easier for the department to remove about 400 high-ranking officials. But that law did not change rules for the rank and file.

The department has been plagued by criticism and missteps in recent years, also including cost overruns and stalled hospital construction projects.

As pressure from veterans has mounted to hold employees accountable for hiding long wait times, the V.A. has struggled to build cases against those implicated in the scandal. More than a year after being put on leave, two top officials at the Phoenix hospital are still drawing a salary while investigations continue.

Some veterans groups have raised concerns that the expedited appeal process proposed by Mr. Miller could overwhelm the Merit Systems Protection Board. But some of those same groups have nevertheless voiced support for the change.

“The government firing system is so cumbersome bad employees can continue to be paid for years,” said Raymond Kelley, legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars. “We need to show them you can no longer hide just because you have a government job, unclog the middle management that appears to be part of the problem and get the right people in those positions.”

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