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VA officials defend pace of action against senior agency executives

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WASHINGTON – House members demanded Thursday to know why senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs who were implicated in recent scandals at the agency have not been fired, months after the agency got that authority.

The questions came during a hearing by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the progress of reforms under the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, signed into law this summer.

“I am both perplexed and disappointed at the pace at which VA employees have been held accountable,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

Miller, the chairman of the committee, cited a VA report that said 1,000 agency employees have been targeted for dismissal for poor performance, but only two senior employees had been fired since the new law took effect.

Committee member Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, said it is high time for the firing of Phoenix VA director Sharon Helman, who has been on paid leave since May. The scandal that enveloped the agency this year began with a whistleblower’s complaints about the Phoenix facility.

“I find it outrageous that Sharon Helman is still collecting her salary of $170,000 after being put on administrative leave,” Kirkpatrick said at the hearing.

But Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson told the committee that the agency still needs to proceed with caution. Hasty firings could result in reversal by the appeals board, which would bring the targeted employees right back to the VA, he said.

“Our goal is for our actions to withstand appeal,” Gibson said.

Roscoe Butler, deputy director for health care at the American Legion, said after the hearing that Thursday’s testimony revealed “a lot of concerns” with the new law.

Butler said the law was written to give the VA secretary authority to fire without the need for an appeal or response period, and the American Legion “expects the secretary to take immediate action against any employee that is found negligent.”

Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the law this summer, months after a whistleblower reported that workers at the Phoenix VA hospital were doctoring patient schedules to make it look like veterans were getting care faster than they actually were. The whistleblower also charged that long wait-times caused the deaths of multiple veterans in Arizona, but that charge was later dismissed by a VA Inspector General’s report on the Phoenix facility.

The Phoenix charges sparked a nationwide investigation of VA hospitals that found wait-time manipulation to be widespread, among other problems that included inflated performance reviews, unearned bonuses and staffing shortages.

The reform law included $17 billion in emergency funding for VA improvements, along with increased firing power for the VA secretary.

But Miller said Thursday that bureaucrats at the agency have, “lied, manipulated data, or simply failed to do the job for which they were hired.” He chided Gibson for the lack of action by the VA against those individuals.

But Gibson remained firm in defense of his actions.

“We want veterans to view the VA as an institution that belongs to them,” Gibson said.

On a positive note, he pointed out that no bonuses will be given to senior VA employees in 2014, and that since May the number of veterans on electronic wait-lists had dropped from 57,000 to 24,000 nationwide.

Since wait-times started what Miller has called “the biggest scandal in VA’s history,” Gibson said that agency transparency about those problems is what will bring people renewed confidence in the agency.

“The VA is committed to creating a culture of sustainable accountability,” he said.