This is a problem which has long since grown past the flaws of a single person, one regional office, or even the entirety of the Veterans Affairs Department itself. For the third time in a matter of weeks, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) has met and reversed the order to terminate the employment of a VA employee who was taken to task for falling down on the job. This time the candidate in question was from a facility in New York. (Government Executive)

The Merit Systems Protection Board on Friday overturned the department’s decision in January to fire Linda Weiss, former director of the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center in upstate New York. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, who has defended his recent personnel decisions related to senior executives, said Friday that he would not return Weiss to her job in Albany, or any other position where she would be responsible for patient safety. Weiss was put on administrative leave in November before being fired last month. She appealed her removal to MSPB in January.

Gibson said he removed Weiss from her job because she did not do enough to ensure the safety of vets seeking care at the Albany medical center, despite complaints from patients.

It’s worth noting that this was a rare case where Sloan Gibson actually took action and fired somebody. (This will come as a shock to many of you who are more familiar with the VA as a department where the firing of anyone is somewhat less common than the sighting of unicorns at the water cooler.) The subject in question is Linda Weiss, formerly in charge of one of their medical centers in Albany, New York. She was let go back in November for what seemed rather obvious causes. (Albany Times Union)

In the last year, two male nurses at Stratton were accused in separate incidents of stealing and using powerful drugs intended for patients. One of them was charged with federal crimes, and the second nurse, who was found incoherent with a used syringe nearby, was let go from his job but not charged criminally even though it was the second incident involving his illicit drug use. Another nurse remained on duty despite complaints from co-workers that he was sleeping on duty, including in the bed of a patient who had died the night before. Also, a former nurse alleges that patients in a geriatric unit with “treatable” conditions were instead being given morphine, hastening their deaths. A hospital spokesperson denied the allegation.

There have been obvious, perhaps fatal problems at the VA for some time now, but as I alluded to above there may be a second and even more serious wound in the body of this beast. When the first disciplinary reversal took place we looked into the origins and function of the MSPB and what role they played in this process. Here’s a reminder of what they do.

The Merit Systems Protection Board is an independent, quasi-judicial agency in the Executive branch that serves as the guardian of Federal merit systems…

The Board assumed the employee appeals function of the Civil Service Commission and was given new responsibilities to perform merit systems studies and to review the significant actions of OPM. The CSRA also created the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) which investigates allegations of prohibited personnel practices, prosecutes violators of civil service rules and regulations, and enforces the Hatch Act. Although originally established as an office of the Board, the OSC now functions independently as a prosecutor of cases before the Board.

They’ve now gone three for three on executives who were either demoted or dismissed for egregious violations, restoring each of them to their perch in defiance of not only common sense, but the directives of the head of the VA. We may be zeroing in on the second half of the problem here. Yes, it took a long time to get the VA leadership to a place where they would actually be willing to punish the corrupt and the incompetent, but that progress is totally negated if there is a toad in the garden which can overrule him at every turn. The MSPB clearly seems to be nothing resembling a fair and impartial actor in this, but rather a tool of the federal employee unions, put in place to ensure that nobody can ever be held accountable and lose their lifetime jobs and generous, taxpayer funded benefits.

If anyone in Congress wants to really solve the problems in the VA, the ongoing examinations need to move beyond the leadership of the department itself. We need to revisit the law which summoned the MSPB into existence and see if it’s time to either severely reform it or do away with it entirely.

LindaWeiss