VA official doesn't know whether it's appropriate to fire people who commit wait-list fraud

Eric Shinseki may have lucked out in today’s hearing on wait-list fraud at the VA, thanks to a deputy who stuck his foot in his mouth during a discussion about disciplinary action. When Sen. Johnny Isaakson (RT-GA) pressed VA Undersecretary of Health Robert Petzel for an answer on whether manipulating the scheduling system to commit wait-list fraud — as alleged at seven VA facilities so far — would be a firing offense, the answer appears to be It depends:

ISAAKSON: What do you do if you uncover one? Surely you’ve uncovered one. What do you do to hold them accountable?

PETZEL: The individuals are, as you mentioned, held accountable. I can’t give you an example specifically, but if someone were found to be manipulating inappropriately the scheduling system, they would be disciplined.

ISAAKSON: Would that — would they lose their job?

PETZEL: I don’t know whether that’s the appropriate level of punishment or not.

This prompts a couple of questions, especially given the context of the 40 veterans in Phoenix who died waiting for medical care while officials falsified records and destroyed evidence. First, what constitutes an appropriate manipulation of the scheduling system? Second, if facilities are evaluated based on wait list times and the employees are falsifying the records of wait list times, doesn’t that demonstrate an overt motive to cover up bad performance? And third, if this isn’t a firing offense — especially with dozens of veterans dying while being denied treatment — what exactly does constitute a firing offense at the VA?

Shinseki also catches a break from Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN), who blames “cultural issues” of the VA and says Shinseki should stay:

A trio of Republican senators have called for Shinseki’s resignation amid reports that veterans were denied healthcare services. But Indiana Republican Sen. Dan Coats cautioned that the VA chief oversees a dysfunctional organization: “Just by firing the coach doesn’t solve the problem … I want to take a much broader look than just simply satisfying people [to] say, ‘Oh we fired the top guy and now everything is going to be fine.”

Coats, a veteran, added that “there’s cultural problems that go way down deep in the VA system.”

No doubt that there are cultural issues at the VA, and that firing Shinseki won’t solve the problem on its own. But Shinseki has been there for more than five years. Clearly the fact that the VA is “so dysfunctional” has escaped Shinseki and/or goes beyond his capacity to address it. Why would anyone think that the man who spent five years not addressing the culture of incompetence and cover-up should stick around now that it’s been exposed?

Update: Sen. Coats’ office sent me a statement and said Coats did not endorse Shinseki to continue, but isn’t calling for a resignation either:

“As a veteran, I firmly believe our country has a duty to honor and support those who have sacrificed to protect and defend our country. Some issues must rise above politics and the care of our veterans tops the list.

“The reports out of Phoenix and other VA facilities are shocking, outrageous and completely unacceptable. Once all the facts are gathered, sweeping changes must be made at this agency. Right now, the credibility of the entire VA health and benefits system is on the line. Along with addressing allegations of abuse, the excessive delays at VA facilities, including those faced by many Hoosiers, must be eliminated.

“While resignations from top leadership may be necessary, the real problem facing the VA is a culture of mismanagement and indifference to the needs of veterans. The VA must refocus and reorganize to ensure that America’s veterans are receiving the care and support they deserve.”

The Hill changed its headline, but not the story that went along with it.