Last week, President Obama signed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. The accountability provision of the law, which grants new VA Secretary Robert McDonald complete authority to fire senior executives, took effect immediately.
So when will the department use the additional firing authority that’s part of the new law? It doesn't appear to be any time soon.
As AP reports this week, the department is in the process of holding dirty employees accountable. But McDonald is not saying how many people are being fired, who they are, or for what they're being fired. Does this sound familiar?
McDonald told reporters at the VA hospital in Memphis on Thursday that VA employees who are being removed are allowed due process, but that the agency is working as fast as it can to punish and even get rid of corrupt employees.
"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. And, so, we can't talk to you about names, we can't talk to you about individuals, even though that's what you would like. We can't do that because that would be disrespectful.
"On the other hand, we've got to deal with it as quickly as we can," he said. "We've got to deal with it deliberately and we've got to deal with it appropriately. I can tell you, we are going to hold people accountable, and we're going to do that as quickly as we possibly can."As NBC News reported this week, VA says it has recommended disciplinary actions against six employees at VA medical facilities in Colorado and Wyoming for manipulating patient wait times, but the punishments for these employees remain unclear.
The VA, which announced the disciplinary actions against VA employees in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Fort Collins, Colorado, said in a July 29 statement that “certain supervisors in these facilities were found to have personally manipulated data, instructed their subordinates to manipulate data, and withheld accurate information from their superiors.”
OK, so why not just get rid of them? The new law makes that pretty easy. These "disciplinary actions" in Colorado and Wyoming are just recommendations. A Congressional source who is very familiar with the situation tells me this week, "Nobody at VA has actually been disciplined. Not one person. The only thing that has happened is a proposal in Wyoming, but nothing's been done yet. The President signed the bill. It is immediate. When will VA use this authority?”
The Congressional source adds that if these employees didn't know what was going on, "they were negligent. If they did know they are corrupt. At a minimum, if they fudged numbers, that is altering federal documents, which of course is not allowed. If those alterations and schemes resulted in a bonus, that is some sort of fraud. And if the manipulation caused harm of a veteran that is something more serious.”
Bottom line? When it comes to revealing what specific executives did at specific VA hospitals, and what their punishment will be, the department is still operating under a shroud of secrecy. This despite all the national media attention in recent months, the new secretary, the angry speeches by President Obama and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, and the new law.
VA still is not saying just how they are dealing with these executives, who of course were on the front lines of the deceit that in some cases lef to veteran harm and even deaths.
The problems at VA absolutely start with the directors of the individual hospitals. That's where the rubber meets the road. And speaking of that, the executive who appears to be among the most corrupt of the bunch, Sharon Helman, the Phoenix VA director who almost comically sped away from CNN reporters in her expensive blue Mercedes Sports Coupe back in May, is still employed.
Multiple sources have told me that Helman knew all about the elaborate scheme at Phoenix VA to cover up long wait times at the hospital. Dr. Sam Foote, a physician who worked at Phoenix VA for 23 years, told me that as many as 40 veterans died at Phoenix VA waiting to see a doctor.
I've spoken to numerous additional sources who worked at Phoenix VA who say the same thing: the problem was deep and wide and Helman knew everything.
VA keeps citing due process. But if anyone should be disciplined right now in this scandal, it should be Helman, who resided over a hospital whose staff lied about wait times and where patients died waiting, and waiting, to be seen.
Rep. Jeff Miller, chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, continues to be frustrated by VA’s lack of accessibility. He's gotten no response from VA or VA's Office of Inspector General to letters demanding that the department disclose just who is being punished and for what.
All this of course leaves veterans with the same deep frustrations with VA that they have had for so long. There have been legitimate efforts by McDonald to address the wait times. But what about accountability? What about all these unquestionably corrupt VA executives? When are we going to see some real disciplinary action?
Frankly, any director of a VA hospital who knew about these manipulations of wait times should be fired. Immediately. Anything less is unacceptable. The point of the bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama is to cut through all that red tape and make it easier for VA to get rid of corrupt officials.
But apparently there are still piles of red tape, and probably dozens of corrupt officials, at the Department of Veterans Affairs.