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VA Officials Won’t Commit to Firing Employees Who Cooked the Books

Committee Dem raises the "elephant in the room" at Shinseki hearing: Shouldn't the FBI be investigating "criminal" waitlist scandal?

by
Bridget Johnson

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May 15, 2014 - 4:50 pm
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WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki insisted today that he’s “mad as hell” about the wait list scandal and reported deaths of dozens of veterans seeking care, but his undersecretary suggested that VA employees who cooked the books might not even lose their jobs.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stressed that he wanted to save a hearing on the scandal for a later date, and instead declared the hearing should be about “what is going well and what is not going well” in VA healthcare.

In the second panel of the hearing, Sanders asked the leaders of major veterans organizations one by one if their members were, for the most part, satisfied with VA healthcare. The trending answer was yes — once veterans got through the gantlet of trying to get an appointment.

“There is no question to my mind that VA healthcare has problems, serious problems. But it is not the case that the rest of healthcare in America is just wonderful — everybody walks in, gets immediate care, gets great care, at no cost. It’s all affordable,” said Sanders, who is a proponent of universal healthcare. “That’s not the world we live in.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the past chairwoman of the committee, stressed that the “recent allegations are not new issues.”

“They are deep, system-wide problems and they grow more concerning every day,” Murray said. “…The GAO reported on VA’s failures with wait times at least as far back as the year 2000. Last Congress, we did a great deal of work around wait times, particularly from mental healthcare. The inspector general looked at these problems in 2005, 2007 and again in 2012. Each time they found schedulers across the country were not following VA policy. They also found in 2012 that VA has no reliable or accurate way of knowing if they are providing timely access to mental healthcare.”

“The lack of transparency and the lack of accountability is inexcusable and cannot continue on. The practices of intimidation and cover-ups has to change, starting today, giving bonuses to hospital directors for running a system that places priority on gaming the system and keeping their numbers down, rather than provide care to veterans has to come to an end,” she continued. “But, Mr. Secretary, it can’t end with just dealing with a few bad actors or putting a handful of your employees on leave. It has to go much further and lead to system-wide change.”

Shinseki said “veterans should feel safe in using VA healthcare.”

“Any allegation, any adverse incidents like this, makes me as — makes me mad as hell. I could use stronger language here, Mr. Chairman, but in deference to the committee, I won’t,” he said.

“If any allegations are true, they’re completely unacceptable to me, to veterans, and, I will tell you, the vast majority of dedicated VHA employees who come to work every day to do their best by those veterans. If any are substantiated by the inspector general, we will act.”

To rectify the crisis, the secretary said, “VA will continue to aggressively develop and sustain reliable systems and train employees to detect and prevent healthcare incidents before they happen.”

When Sanders asked Shinseki if he was aware of VA employees “cooking the books” — shifting veterans onto secret waiting lists to make their stats for appointment times look better — Shinseki replied, “I’m not aware other than a number of isolated cases where there is evidence of that.”

He told Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) that last Friday he put on administrative leave an employee in Fort Collins, Colo., revealed to have written an email on ways to “game the system.”

The secretary also said that a December report from the Cheyenne Medical Center and Fort Collins clinic — which found the “medical center’s business office training included teaching them to make the desired date the actual appointment, and if the clinic needed to cancel appointments, they were instructed to change the desired date to within 14 days of the new appointment” — just came to his attention “recently.”

Murray noted that an undersecretary warned her at a 2012 hearing that “gaming is so prevalent, as soon as new directives are put out, they’re torn apart to find out how to get around the requirement.”

“And the standard practice at the V.A. seems to be to hide the truth in order to look good. That has got to change once and for all,” she said. “And I want to know how you’re going to get your medical directors and your network leaders to tell you, whether it’s through this survey or in the future, when they have a problem and will work with you to address it, rather than pursuing these secret lists and playing games with these wait times.”

“Senator, if there’s anything that gets me angrier than just hearing allegations is to hear you tell me that we have folks that can’t be truthful because they think the system doesn’t allow it,” Shinseki retorted.

“This review will not work if those people who are telling you the information do not tell you the truth,” Murray noted of the VA’s plan to survey employees in its investigation.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
Someone does the scheduling. If it is not the doctors themselves then what administrator does that? Is it like colleges and high schools, where there are more administrators than actual health care professionals i.e. doctors, nurses and the technicians that operate medical devices ? And what of the funding of the VA? If you ask any employee of the leviathan federal government, it is grossly underfunded, every last department, administration, program and panel with billions of taxpayers money. It seems to me that the billions spent on all of these institutions only illustrates the ethical bankruptcy of those administering them. Now culminating in the the death so far of 40 veterans. It isn't about the budget, it's about the rank dishonesty created by a government so large that it can't even dismiss those who caused the deaths of those they were supposed to serve. Until the truth is faced and punishment meted out to those who 'gamed' this system, more deaths of the truly courageous by the truly cowardly will continue. Who should we stand for, the courageous or the cowardly? The cowardly only stand to lose their jobs, the courageous lost their lives.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Obama administration has put Eric Holder, Lois Lerner, Chuck Hagel, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, John Kerry, Robert Malley, Kathleen Sebelius into positions of power as czars and czarinas.

They nominated a communist (Van Jones) and a cop killer apologist.

In other words, across the board they empower the unelectable, to support the unaccountable to perform the unthinkable.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Lets face it - the VA and its health care (now ObamaCare) has been underfunded for 50 years or more. Those senators and congressmen that want to place the blame on Shinseki had better go home tonight and take a long hard look into the mirror. I don't often agree with my own senator (Murray, D-WA) but on this she is correct.

I have VA health care and I can tell you that I'd have to be dying to get an appointment in under 2 weeks. My current VA Dr. likes to hear himself talk. I had to ask him if he'd heard a word I said last time I was there! The lab tech can't seem to find a vein for a blood test without poking around for half a minute. I ended up walking out on one draw. It took 2 weeks for the blood to clear up under the skin. That guy is incompetent! I miss the health care and Dr. I had prior - and I've been thinking of signing up for Medicare and go back to that Dr. - as much as that system sucks it looks like a better alternative.

The entire VA system is overloaded and broken and all anyone wants to do is have Shinseki fall on his sword. Congress needs to fall on their own sword.

27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (17)
All Comments   (17)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
The Obama administration has a consistent strategy of never firing anyone, effectively buying their silence.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Shinseki is not medical staff. Your argument is non-sequitur.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Congress. Hold someone, somewhere accountable for something. Then watch what happens. Or is that why you don't?
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, the VA has removed people for gaming the system. But I'll bet that they turned right around and rehired them in different positions. That stuff has been going on for years and it's not limited to the VA system.

I think Blumenthal is right. There needs to be criminal investigation and VA employees have to know that if you game the system you might very well end up in jail.

The same thing needs to happen at the IRS as well.

But with our illustrious Attorney General more interested in protecting the President than he is in doing his job, there is no chance of that happening.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
They can't. Somebody might get pissed and tell who told them to phony the numbers.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Someone does the scheduling. If it is not the doctors themselves then what administrator does that? Is it like colleges and high schools, where there are more administrators than actual health care professionals i.e. doctors, nurses and the technicians that operate medical devices ? And what of the funding of the VA? If you ask any employee of the leviathan federal government, it is grossly underfunded, every last department, administration, program and panel with billions of taxpayers money. It seems to me that the billions spent on all of these institutions only illustrates the ethical bankruptcy of those administering them. Now culminating in the the death so far of 40 veterans. It isn't about the budget, it's about the rank dishonesty created by a government so large that it can't even dismiss those who caused the deaths of those they were supposed to serve. Until the truth is faced and punishment meted out to those who 'gamed' this system, more deaths of the truly courageous by the truly cowardly will continue. Who should we stand for, the courageous or the cowardly? The cowardly only stand to lose their jobs, the courageous lost their lives.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Obama administration has put Eric Holder, Lois Lerner, Chuck Hagel, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, John Kerry, Robert Malley, Kathleen Sebelius into positions of power as czars and czarinas.

They nominated a communist (Van Jones) and a cop killer apologist.

In other words, across the board they empower the unelectable, to support the unaccountable to perform the unthinkable.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Now, just wait a minute here.......this snappy attention-getting headline, "VA Officials Won’t Commit to Firing Employees Who Cooked the Books".......is directing our attention by using the wrong end of the telescope.

Aren't these V.A. Civil Service officials, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and on down within the bureaucratic hierarchy, the mid-graders all at the mercy of the Civil Service Commission's [or whatever it's called now] regulations and the more militant union mentality now seemingly taken over the Federal Government working staff as a whole?

The Government just can't up and fire anyone for incompetency as is the case with mid-management in a business enterprise.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Federal government unions are relatively weak compared to state and local public employee unions in the states that countenance full collective bargaining for public employees. The real issue with the federal government is that it has a culture of incompetence and unaccountability. The only really actionable misconduct in the federal government is making waves. If an employee does his/her job too well, the other employees look bad and consequently the higher performing employee becomes an "other" and gets less attractive assignments and conditions. If they persist in being an other, before long their office has no windows, their seat flushes, their phone is unlisted, and they don't have email. The same treatment is afforded anyone who dares criticize or question supervisors and managers. It's not that the rules make it too difficult to discipline or dismiss and employee, it's that the culture makes nobody want to discipline or dismiss an employee.

The culture of incompetence and unaccountability is aggravated by the fact that so many federal employees in delivery of service jobs are at best marginally competent affirmative action or other preference hires. Minority employees are virtually untouchable by supervisors and managers in most governments. My state's government was quite aggressive in disciplining its unionized employees, yet our first question to a supervisor calling labor relations or human resources for advice in a disciplinary matter was always whether the employee was a member of a protected class. Supervisors and managers have trouble in both Democrat and Republican administrations. First, Democrats are usually very reticent to take action against any minority employee and if a supervisor or manager tries to take action sua sponte, all it takes is one phone call from one important minority constituency leader to the nearest politically appointed manager and the offending supervisor or manager is doing the carpet dance over attempting to discipline the minority employee. This has the effect of also lowering the disciplinary standards for all the employees. If a non-minority employee is disciplined or dismissed all s/he has to do is show the board, and arbitrator, or a court that a minority employee did the same or worse and received less or no discipline. So, the standard becomes little or no discipline no matter what. In Republican administrations, political management is often reticent to take the heat for disciplining minority employees and even if they are they're still faced with the lower standard of discipline having been set by and for minority employees. This is further aggravated by the fact that merit system supervisors and managers know that if they are aggressive towards employees in cooperation with a Republican administration's desire to improve performance, one day there will again be a Democrat sitting in the big chair and s/he will have a list of supervisors and managers who collaborated with the Republicans. There is always a hit list when Democrats take over from Republicans and supervisors and merit system managers with mortgages and kids in college don't want to be on it. And merit system rules only apply to Republicans; Democrats can fire people down to the clerks and not get the slightest press notice. Even if individual employees do prevail in wrongful discharge actions nobody will ever hear about it and if they get their job back, their work life won't be worth living. Anyone who's smart who get's cross-threaded with Democrats and fired, just tries for enough of a cash settlement to pay off their debts and goes to the private sector as an entry-level employee because they'll never work for government or any business that does business with government again so long as Democrats are in charge. And often even Republican governments won't hire them because of the taint of controversy or the stench of the slime Democrats throw on such employees.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Bingo, you found the root cause. Congress has no power except to launch more public service agencies and functions that they immediately lose control of. "Today, we are failing the test.” what a joke. Big government operated by unionized workers fails every test.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
The VA system is a microcosm of a single payer healthcare system. And this is only 1700 sites of care and 9 million people.

In Obama's ideal world this is the system that all citizens would be subject to - a single payer system manned by government employees.

If they can't fund/ manage/ administer/ enroll and treat this relatively small population, just what would be different for a system with 5 times more lives and thousands more sites of care?

With single payer, these types of hearings and debates will occur ad nauseum. And we'll be like England - both parties debating about who can control the healthcare beast the best.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
The only debate between our parties now is who can best control the central government beast. Not one of them speaks of actually slaying it.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Very well said.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Whoops! Not 5 times more lives -- 20-25 times more lives...
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Lets face it - the VA and its health care (now ObamaCare) has been underfunded for 50 years or more. Those senators and congressmen that want to place the blame on Shinseki had better go home tonight and take a long hard look into the mirror. I don't often agree with my own senator (Murray, D-WA) but on this she is correct.

I have VA health care and I can tell you that I'd have to be dying to get an appointment in under 2 weeks. My current VA Dr. likes to hear himself talk. I had to ask him if he'd heard a word I said last time I was there! The lab tech can't seem to find a vein for a blood test without poking around for half a minute. I ended up walking out on one draw. It took 2 weeks for the blood to clear up under the skin. That guy is incompetent! I miss the health care and Dr. I had prior - and I've been thinking of signing up for Medicare and go back to that Dr. - as much as that system sucks it looks like a better alternative.

The entire VA system is overloaded and broken and all anyone wants to do is have Shinseki fall on his sword. Congress needs to fall on their own sword.

27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Congress has failed in its oversight of just about everything. To blame the defects entirely on underfunding rather than misallocation and mismanagement of funds however is just more of the same willful obtuseness that guarantees the tragedy will continue.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Re:
"The entire VA system is overloaded and broken and all anyone wants to do is have Shinseki fall on his sword. Congress needs to fall on their own sword."

Totally agree.

The Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees are supposed to have "oversight" of the Veterans Administration? Where has this Congressional "oversight" been all of this time which would've prevented such an understaffed Medical division situation to grow in the first place?

Be very careful about pointing fingers at the professional medical staff themselves. These V.A. Doctors and Nurses simply have too many patients. They're trapped at the end of the pipeline of the Washington D.C. bureaucracy.

These Congressmen and -women so focused on their tenure and appearing at microphones during these hearings should not be so quick to take the politically expedient way out by scapegoating the overworked/understaffed professional medical practitioners at these V.A. Hospitals. Again, they're not the ones having to treat these Veteran-patients on a daily basis.

27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
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