Just in time for Veterans Day, President Obama's new Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald has announced the biggest shake-up in its history in response to this summer's scandal over long wait times and poor healthcare at veterans' hospitals around the country. But despite McDonald's promises, many hospital administrators at the center of the VA scandal remain on the agency's payroll.
In an interview with CNN Monday, McDonald said that the department has taken "disciplinary action" against 5,600 employees so far this year, with more firings to come. Additionally, McDonald said the department plans to hire roughly 28,000 medical personnel across the country to deal with the central cause of the delay.
"We are acting aggressively, expeditiously, and consistent with the law," McDonald told Wolf Blitzer. "This is going to be the largest reorganization of the Department of Veterans Affairs since its establishment."
McDonald, a former CEO of Proctor & Gamble, was appointed to lead the agency three months ago, after his predecessor Eric Shinseki resigned over news reports and internal investigations that revealed veterans hospitals across the country were using secret lists to hide long wait times for patients. Overwhelmed by the wave of veterans returning after the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, many top hospital administrators were accused of sweeping scheduling problems under the rug, avoiding electronic wait lists and reporting rosy official numbers to the department in order to secure bonuses. Reports also contained numerous allegations of retaliation against staff that attempted to blow the whistle on how the system was being gamed.
In the meantime patients were waiting for treatment for up to year, sometimes with deadly consequences. At a Phoenix VA hospital alone, at least 40 veterans are alleged to have died as a result of delayed care. In April, the VA disclosed in April that, since 1999, 76 patients have been gravely injured because of delayed gastro-intestinal cancer screenings, and 23 have died. One of those patients, Barry Coates, testified before a congressional committee that he waited for more than a year for a colonoscopy at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina. When he finally received a screening, it revealed advanced colorectal cancer.
"It is likely too late for me," Coates said. "The gross negligence of my ongoing problems and crippling backlog epidemic of the VA medical system has not only handed me a death sentence, but ruined the quality of life I have for the meantime."
Earlier this year, Congress passed a bill loosening the VA's strict and time-consuming rules for terminating employees in an attempt to give McDonald greater leeway in cleaning house at the agency. Yet the only senior administrator who has been fired so far is James Talton, the director of the VA in central Alabama. Two other senior officials resigned before they could be fired, which means they will receive full pension benefits. And the VA placed Terry Wolf, the director of the Pittsburgh VA, on paid leave in June after an internal review of a deadly Legionnaire's disease outbreak that was initially hidden from the public and press. Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA hospital, where the scandal first surfaced, has been on paid leave since May.
McDonald has said that his hands are tied by ongoing criminal investigations. Nearly 70 hospitals used tactics similar to Phoenix, and the federal Office of Special Counsel is investigating alleged retaliation against 38 VA employees in 18 states who tried to report problems.
"We are moving as aggressively and expeditiously as possible," he told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last week. "The FBI is involved in many of these investigations, the Department of Justice and the inspector general. And as all of that evidentiary material is created it is passed on to us if they decide not to do criminal prosecution. Criminal prosecution has the priority and then the administrative disciplinary action follows."
However, the Justice Department gave the VA a green light to fire Helman. In a Nov. 3 email to a congressional staffer, a DOJ attorney wrote that the "Department of Justice takes no position" on whether the VA should proceed with firing Helman.
Federal employees have strong protections and appeals rights if they are fired, even under the VA's new rules. "We understand that Secretary McDonald wants to make sure VA follows proper legal procedure in the firing of any employees, and that he doesn't want such actions thrown out on appeal," Verna Jones, executive director of the American Legion, told The Hill. However, Jones said she the American Legion is still "quite disappointed that only one senior VA executive has been fired thus far, and that at least two others remain on paid administrative leave at taxpayers' expense."
Republican Congressman Jeff Miller, the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and one of the VA's sharpest critics, argued that McDonald hasn't fully embraced his new authority to fire administrators involved in the scandal.
"New plans, initiatives and organizational structures are all well and good, but they will not produce their intended results until VA rids itself of the employees who have shaken veterans' trust in the system. So far VA hasn't done that – as evidenced by the fact that the majority of those who caused the VA scandal are still on the department payroll," Miller said in a statement. ""No one doubts that reforming VA is a tough job. But getting rid of failed executives should be the easiest part—not the most difficult."