Vets still betrayed — nothing’s been fixed at the VA
Sharon Helman, the face of the Veterans Administration scandal, finally got sacked on Monday.
Helman was the director of the Phoenix VA, where vets needing medical care languished on secret lists. It took seven months to fire her. So much for the “VA reform” law that Congress passed last August.
Nearly all the managers guilty of manipulating waiting lists, lying to vets and covering up are still getting paid. They have their jobs or they’re collecting paid leave or they retired with full benefits.
As for vets getting their promised Choice Cards to escape waitlists and see a civilian doctor, don’t hold your breath.
A whistleblower exposed the dirty tricks at the Phoenix VA last April, forcing Congress to deal with a problem it had allowed to fester for a decade.
Earlier investigations had uncovered how managers manipulated waiting lists to make themselves look good and collect bonuses, while vets suffered. But few members of Congress bothered to read those earlier reports.
The Phoenix revelations prompted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to offer a bill last May that would enable the VA secretary to fire senior managers linked to the secret lists. Rubio said the secretary must be able to “fire executives underneath him if they haven’t done their job.”
But the Veterans Committee chairman, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.), killed the bill. Sanders, a self-described socialist whose top campaign contributors are unions, insisted on protecting “due process” rules that make it as hard to fire federal workers — even top managers — as it is to ax an incompetent New York City public-school teacher.
Three months later, Congress passed the Veterans Access Choice and Accountability Act with bipartisan fanfare.
The bill’s backers, including Sanders, promised it would allow the VA secretary to hold corrupt senior executives accountable. That was a lie from Day One, but since few members of Congress read that bill before voting on it, how would they know?
The truth came to light in a heated Nov. 13 interrogation of VA Deputy Director Sloan Gibson by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he was “perplexed and disappointed” at the lack of change in VA personnel.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) called it “outrageous that Sharon Helman is still collecting her salary of $170,000 after being put on leave in May” and demanded she be fired immediately.
That’s when Gibson broke the bad news that “reform” didn’t make it easier to fire corrupt executives: “Any removal must still meet stringent evidentiary standards and provide due process.”
Otherwise, cautioned Gibson, the Merit System Protection Board (which protects lack of merit across the federal government) will overturn the firing, reinstate the employee and award back pay and legal fees.
Miller then demanded to know why corrupt employees can retire with all the “whistles and bells.” Gibson explained that the new law doesn’t remedy that, either.
So far, only three senior executives have been fired despite corruption in at least a dozen VA facilities. James Talton, former director of the Central Alabama VA, was terminated Oct. 24 for falsifying wait times and tolerating other abuses.
Hundreds of patient X-rays were lost, and a pulmonologist copied old test results into patients’ records to avoid performing new tests. Talton’s boss, Charles Sepich, announced his own retirement last week.
The second to go was Terry Gerigk Wolf, director of the Pittsburgh VA, accused of concealing the presence of Legionella bacteria in the hospital’s water supply — a contamination that led to the deaths of six vets.
At the hearing, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) called it “indefensible” that Wolf’s deputy was recently promoted to head the Erie VA, proving that “if you hide information, and even though people die, you’re going to get promoted.”
The same thing that ails the VA infects the entire federal bureaucracy. Firing a federal employee is almost impossible, and making it stick even harder.
Some 4,000 federal employees are on paid administrative leave right now, vacationing while the government struggles with “the bad performance protection board.”
But at the VA, bad performance costs the lives of men and women who served their country.
Meanwhile, the new law required that vets be given Choice Cards by Nov. 5. No surprise. The VA has only managed to get about one-tenth of the cards mailed out, prolonging the deadly wait.
Don’t expect anyone to lose his job over that, either.
Betsy McCaughey is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.