Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System in which vets needing medical care languished on secret lists, finally got sacked last week. She was the face of the VA scandal. Yet firing her took seven months.
Unions have the Department of Veterans Affairs in a headlock, and nothing in the phony reform law passed by Congress last August changed that. Nearly all 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 ahead of the ax. As for vets getting their promised Choice cards to escape wait lists and see a civilian doctor, don’t hold your breath.
A whistle blower 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.
Last May, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., offered a bill enabling the VA secretary to fire senior managers linked to the secret lists. Rubio said the secretary has to be able to “fire executives underneath him if they haven’t done their job.” But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a self-described socialist whose top campaign contributors are unions, killed the bill. Sanders insisted on protecting “due process” rules that make firing federal workers as hard as firing incompetent public school teachers.
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 on November 13 during a heated interrogation of VA Deputy Director Sloan Gibson by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Committee Chair 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 administrative leave in May.” Kirkpatrick said she wanted Helman fired immediately.
That’s when Gibson broke the bad news that the new law doesn’t make it easier to fire corrupt executives. “Any removal must still meet stringent evidentiary standards and provide due process.” Otherwise, cautioned Gibson, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (which protects lack of merit in every federal department) 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 answered 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 facilities. James Talton, former director of the Central Alabama VA, was terminated on October 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, who was accused of concealing the presence of Legionella bacteria in the hospital’s water supply. Six vets died. At the hearing, Congressman 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.”
What ails the VA infects the entire federal bureaucracy. Firing a federal employee is almost impossible, and making it stick is even harder. There are 4,000 employees now on paid administrative leave, vacationing while the government struggles with “the bad performance protection board.”
But at the VA, bad performance costs vets their lives. The new law required that vets be given Choice cards by November 5. No surprise. Only about one-tenth of the cards have been mailed, prolonging the deadly wait.
Betsy McCaughey Ph.D. is chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths and a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.