In the wake of the wait-list scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Obama administration promised to impose accountability. Barack Obama himself asked VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, and appointed Robert McDonald to instill more discipline at the Veterans Administration. Congress started debating a law making it easier to fire people for misconduct and incompetence, and two months ago McDonald told NBC News’ Chuck Todd that he’d fired 60 or more VA officials for manipulating wait times:
CHUCK TODD: Well, I understand that and it’s already an extension of a year of the original goal. As you know, you’re in the Office of Inspector General for the VA. The issue of the homelessness call center. Forty thousand, five hundred missed opportunities where the call center either didn’t refer homeless veterans to medical facilities or other or take care of their problems. And I know you give out your private, cell phone number.
VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD: I have given out my private, cell phone number.
CHUCK TODD: I’m glad you’re doing it. Is it trickling down? What about this call center? You can be responsive. What about the call center?
VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD: Well, it’s not just trickling down. We’re making fundamental changes in the department in terms of leadership. We have held accountable about 900 employees who are no longer with us that were with us before I became secretary.
CHUCK TODD: What does held accountable mean? Have you fired them?
VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD: Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary.
CHUCK TODD: All right, so.
VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD: We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times. We’ve got about 100 senior leaders who are under investigation now whose performance reviews have been deferred until we get feedback from the IG and Department of Justice. So we’re holding people accountable.
Sixty people? The New York Times’ Dave Phillips got access to internal VA documents that put the number lower — a lot lower. In fact, only three people have lost their jobs since McDonald took over, and the wait-list scandal didn’t figure into any terminations:
The nationwide scandal last spring over manipulated wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals led to the ouster of the secretary of veterans affairs and vows from the new leadership that people would be held accountable.
Then in February, the new secretary, Robert A. McDonald, asserted in a nationally televised interview that the department had fired 60 people involved in manipulating wait times to make it appear that veterans were receiving care faster than they were. In fact, the department quickly clarified after that interview, only 14 people had been removed from their jobs, while about 60 others had received lesser punishments.
Now, new internal documents show that the real number of people removed from their jobs is much smaller still: at most, three.
In fact, the only one explicitly fired got the axe for accepting gifts, not for fraud:
The only person fired was the director of the Phoenix hospital, Sharon Helman, who technically was removed not for her role in the manipulation of waiting lists but for receiving “inappropriate gifts,” according to the department.
Recommending people to receive a letter about their wrongdoing is not the same thing as being fired. Recommending people to be fired is not the same thing as being fired. Employees are not fired unless they have been removed from their jobs — and as of two days before McDonald went on the air, there were eight employees who were removed for manipulating patient wait-time data. So McDonald’s statement is incorrect.
The 900-employee figure does not have much meaning in this context, given the size of the agency and the focus on holding senior executives accountable. Only three of the five executives he proposed for removal using his new authority were actually removed, and the other two were forced into retirement. Five top executives leaving their posts in six months is a record pace for the VA, but only one was officially removed in relation to the scandal. Whether resigning under pressure should be counted as being “held accountable” or being fired — well, McDonald may knowbetter about that himself.
The public expects accuracy as the agency works to restore credibility. It is especially important for McDonald to be precise about his terminology — and to provide truthful information to the public. He earns Four Pinocchios for wildly inflating his “firing” statistics.
Two months later, though, McDonald still hasn’t terminated anyone. Of course, Congress still hasn’t passed the bill to make firings any easier, but almost one year later that’s at best a secondary point. Hundreds of veterans died waiting for care while this fraud occurred, and thousands of more were put at risk while the VA kept them locked out from medical assistance. If McDonald can’t perform any better than this, then it’s time to find a VA Secretary who’s more up to the task — and certainly one who’s more honest about his own performance.