A pair of scathing reports last week on the growing scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that wait time schemes and data manipulation are systemic throughout the VA, putting veterans across the country at risk.
The independent VA Inspector General’s report was brutal in its assessment. Department officials at the Phoenix VA Health Care System used tricks to hide months-long delays faced by veterans seeking appointments. This fraud increased hospital administrators’ chances of netting cash bonuses and salary increases while jeopardizing veterans’ health, the report implied. According to the IG, similar scams are taking place at VA hospitals throughout the country.
A second report, done by the VA itself, was even bleaker. Many VA medical centers are plagued by a systemic lack of integrity, it said. Schedulers were pressured into manipulating data in order to make appointment wait times appear shorter, and staff at nearly two-thirds of 216 VA medical facilities reviewed were instructed to cook the books.
Clearly the VA’s entire system for providing timely medical care is in dire need of reform. A number of lawmakers, including me, are in the process of introducing legislation that would do just that. But those reforms will be impossible to implement if the people responsible for this corruption remain entrenched in the VA’s bureaucracy.
As the reports make painfully obvious, the environment in today’s Veterans Health Administration is one in which some VA health officials are so driven in their quest for performance bonuses, promotions and power that they are willing to lie, cheat and put the health of the veterans they were hired to serve at risk. These are not people who deserve a second chance. They deserve a swift exit from federal employment, and possibly an entrance to federal prison. Any VA administrator who ordered subordinates to purposely manipulate appointment data should be fired immediately.
Unfortunately that is currently impossible due to indefensible civil service rules that put the job security of failing VA bureaucrats ahead of the safety of the veterans they are charged with serving. In his last speech as VA Secretary, Eric Shinseki essentially admitted this when he said he had “initiated the process for the removal” of the Phoenix hospital’s senior leaders.
The process Shinseki was referring to can drag on for long periods of time, involves miles of red tape and does not guarantee the removal of anyone, as it is subject to review by something called the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency with complete power to overturn federal personnel actions on the basis of “due process violations” and other legal technicalities.
Last month the House of Representatives passed a bill that would give the VA secretary the authority to sidestep this arcane process and immediately fire VA senior executives based on performance. By an overwhelming bipartisan 390-33 vote, lawmakers sent the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act, which I introduced, to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future amid concerns that it would trample on the “rights” and “protections” of failing VA executives. Ironically, the same lawmakers voicing these concerns do not afford similar “rights” and “protections” to their own employees, making their opposition to the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act all the more incomprehensible.
The VA is in the middle of the biggest healthcare scandal in its history. At least 42 VA medical facilities are under federal investigation for lying about the extent of the VA’s delays in care problem, and by the department’s own count at least 23 veterans are dead due to recent delays in VA medical care. To date, despite numerous requests from the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs regarding disciplinary actions in response to these deaths and more than a dozen other recent preventable fatalities at a host of VA medical facilities around the country, there is no indication that any VA executives have been fired. Instead, department officials have pointed to non-disciplinary actions, such as employee transfers, resignations and retirements, or bureaucratic slaps on the wrist, such as temporary written warnings, in order to create the appearance of accountability.
When mismanagement and negligence of this scale go essentially unpunished, it sends a message of cold, hard indifference to veterans seeking care at the VA, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dedicated department employees who go to work every day trying to do the right thing.
In order to pave the way for serious and substantive reforms that will help the VA to effectively deliver the care and benefits our veterans have earned, we need to root out the culture of corruption and complacency that has taken hold within the department and is contributing to all of its most pressing challenges. The only way to accomplish this is by getting rid of the VA leaders whose negligence and dishonesty have enabled these problems to fester.
The only right executives who contributed to the VA scandal should have is the right to be shown the door. It would be a grave mistake for the Senate to stand in the doorway, blocking their exit.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Chumuckla, Fla., is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.