Apparently, Department of Veterans Affairs officials haven’t learned much from the wait-time scandal that shook VA to its foundations and forced the resignation of former Secretary Eric Shinseki.
At its core, VA’s nationwide delays-in-care debacle, in which VA employees manipulated veterans’ medical appointment data in order to hide long waits for care, was about bureaucrats who chose to cover up problems rather than own up to them.
Unfortunately, it seems the same sort of attitude that created the VA scandal is still alive and well within the department. That’s because — in a bizarre attempt to defend the department’s lack of accountability — VA leaders have adopted the puzzling strategy of downplaying and making excuses for instances of employee misconduct that every objective observer knows are abhorrent.
Case in point is a recent interview with USA Today in which VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson lamented media reports of VA’s wait-time scandal, which according to VA’s inspector general involved employees at 40 VA medical facilities around the country who manipulated veterans’ wait times in order to make long waits appear shorter.
Gibson suggested that some of the media coverage of VA’s wait-time issues was “crap” that created the false impression that veterans seeking VA care would encounter “some lazy, corrupt bureaucrat who doesn’t care a whit.” The comments are a remarkable rhetorical about-face for Gibson, because they’re in contrast to the Obama administration’s official position on the VA scandal.
In fact, in 2014, then-White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors and Gibson, himself, briefed President Obama that VA’s Veterans Health Administration’s “corrosive culture has led to personnel problems across the department that are seriously impacting … the timeliness of health care.” VHA’s problems “are exacerbated by poor management and communication structures, distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels,” the briefing continued.
While there is no doubt that VA is home to many employees who are hard-working and dedicated to serving veterans, it’s also a place where — because of dysfunctional federal civil service rules that VA opposes changing for most employees — corrupt behavior such as wait-time manipulation is routinely tolerated. The fact that VA’s top leaders are now failing to acknowledge this only undermines their credibility as they seek to regain the trust of the veterans they are charged with serving.
Consider the facts.
In the Phoenix area alone, 293 veterans died waiting for VA care, according to VA’s inspector general. Separately, VA has linked the deaths of an additional 23 veterans across the country to delayed treatment. Those are facts — not crap — that may have had life-and-death implications for veterans who deserved much better. Yet incredibly, the department has successfully fired fewer than 10 people for wait-time-related issues.
Let that sink in. VA bureaucrats at 40 locations were manipulating data to hide long waits for care, 316 veterans died and yet VA has only successfully fired fewer than 10 people for these issues.
It’s obvious that until those who caused the VA scandal are removed from the department’s payroll, efforts to reform the department will never succeed. Unfortunately, under this administration, that’s unlikely to happen. That’s because instead of properly holding problem employees accountable, VA is all-too-often content to simply make excuses — often excruciatingly bad ones — for their misbehavior.
VA’s handling of wait-time manipulation problems in Central Texas underscores this point. There, the department’s inspector general found systemic data manipulation at VA facilities throughout Austin, San Antonio and Kerrville. More than 20 employees admitted to cooking the books, with some saying they feared being fired for refusing to manipulate data. Despite the report’s damning findings, VA has not disciplined a single employee for this behavior.
So what’s VA’s excuse after its Central Texas employees were caught red-handed falsifying government data? “We cannot explain the actions of the schedulers.”
Of course they can’t. It’s hard to defend the indefensible.
VA’s excuse making goes beyond wait-time manipulation issues and applies to criminal acts as well. Take the case of the VA Caribbean Healthcare System in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which the average person could easily mistake for a federal jobs program for ex-cons rather than a VA medical facility.
At the San Juan hospital, a VA employee remains on the payroll despite her participation in an armed robbery, because according to VA, employees can be involved in stickups as long as they do so in their free time. At the same location, VA touts the “significant contributions” as a “subject matter expert” of a convicted sex offender who works as a human resource specialist. The facility has also put a felon who was sentenced to prison as part of a credit card scheme in charge of one of the hospital’s purchasing programs.
And people wonder why VA isn’t fixed yet.
Enough is enough. It’s time for VA leaders to level with veterans and the American people. The VA scandal was not overblown, it was real. Yes, it really is too hard to fire federal employees of all pay grades, and this sad fact is causing problems for veterans as well as thousands of VA employees who are actually dedicated to doing their jobs.
Veterans are depending on VA for solutions to the department’s most pressing problems. There is simply no excuse for VA’s litany of excuses regarding employees who can’t or won’t do their jobs.