As part of a push for increased transparency, the Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday released a list of nearly 700 employees who have been fired, suspended or demoted since January, including two dozen from the VA region that includes Central Texas.
Most of the local firings are of lower-level workers, including nurses, medical assistants and supply technicians. One “senior leader” was fired in April. The VA didn’t publish the names of the fired workers, reason for their discipline or the facility where they worked.
The list is an initiative from the newly created VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, created by an executive order from President Donald Trump in April and made permanent in recently adopted legislation. The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, signed last month, makes it easier to fire employees, lowering the threshold of evidence needed for disciplinary action.
“Under this administration, VA is committed to becoming the most transparent organization in government,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said in announcing what he said would be a weekly listing of disciplined employees. “This additional step will continue to shine a light on the actions we’re taking to reform the culture at VA.”
Conservative lawmakers and advocacy groups have called for greater ease in firing and disciplining VA employees since the scandals over manipulated data on how long veterans had to wait for VA care erupted in 2014, including at several VA facilities in Central Texas and San Antonio.
Unions representing VA workers have bitterly criticized the new legislation, which they say is an attempt to undercut the civil service system and unfairly targets rank-and-file employees rather than high-ranking executives.
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in May, J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called the new legislation a “cynical effort to ride the wave of public outrage over some legitimate problems … to destroy yet another union and the civil service.”
In a statement to the American-Statesman on Friday, Cox called the public listing of disciplined employees an intimidation tactic. “One-third of all VA employees are veterans themselves, and yet the administration is busy patting themselves on the back while so many veterans are being told they no longer have a job,” Cox said. “Window-dressing reforms like this do nothing to address the underlying issue at the VA, which is the shortage of doctors, nurses and intake staff at hospitals and clinics across the country.”
It’s not clear if any of the local firings are related to wait-time data manipulation at Central Texas VA facilities. Last year, the VA’s Office of Inspector General found scheduling clerks regularly masked the true nature of wait times at hospitals and clinics in the region by inputting false appointment data.
But even though many clerks told investigators they had been instructed to manipulate the data and feared retribution if they didn’t take part in the scheme, the Office of Inspector General concluded that VA executives didn’t order the data manipulation.
In the report’s aftermath, politicians held up the lack of discipline for local employees and supervisors as evidence of dysfunction within the VA. “The findings are clear: Scheduling clerks throughout Central Texas manipulated wait time data,” said then-chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, former U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller. “And in classic VA fashion, not a single person has been held accountable for any of this wrongdoing.”
What we reported
In 2014, the American-Statesman detailed allegations from a Department of Veterans Affairs scheduling clerk, who said that VA leadership in Central Texas had directed schedulers to manipulate wait-time data at local medical facilities by inputting false appointment dates.
The story, and subsequent Statesman coverage of other VA whistleblower claims, sparked the probe by the VA’s Office of Inspector General into local medical centers and calls for a wider investigation of VA scheduling practices in Texas by two dozen members of the state’s congressional delegation.