VA Secretary Bob McDonald seems fuzzy on the phrase new management

Fact checkers have already determined that Barack Obama was tossing out some pants on fire material when he said that “a whole bunch of people” had been fired at the Veterans Administration (which Ed covered last week). This confusion over management structure in the department seems to run from the top down because our secretary at the VA, Bob McDonald, has been under additional scrutiny lately. In recent interviews, McDonald has been asked just how many changes have taken place. He seems to have followed in the footsteps of his boss when he told one reporter that there was new management in place in more than 90%” of the VA’s medical centers. The USA Today looks over that claim and finds that it’s not only wrong, but he’s not even close.

Although Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald has asserted that more than “90%” of the VA’s medical centers have “new leadership” or “leadership teams” since he took over the troubled agency in 2014, a USA TODAY investigation found the VA has hired just eight medical center directors from outside the agency during that time.

The rest of the “new leadership” McDonald cites is the result of moving existing managers between jobs and medical centers. Some managers were transferred to new jobs despite concerns about the care provided to veterans at the facilities they were previously managing.

Oh, there were changes made in a significant number of positions alright, but in all but a few cases these were simply offices where one VA employee was replaced with another one. (And the person being replaced wasn’t even fired… they were simply shuffled off to yet another position in the same organization.) Out of 140 medical center directors, USA Today found that 92 of them (66%) are indeed different than in July 2014. Almost two dozen of those are simply interim appointees and 84 of them already worked at the VA. Rather than any sort of sweeping reform, this essentially constitutes rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

This “confusion” over staffing numbers seeps down further. When McDonald was challenged on his figures he described “the number” as being almost irrelevant, and this same issue with mathematics clearly plagues his Undersecretary for Health. David Shulkin (who currently holds that office) offered the following observations on those tricky figures.

We tend to use lots of numbers and that can be confusing, and what I’m trying to do is simplify the message, so here’s my message: I need help,” Shulkin said. “I need the right leaders to come in and to take these positions of responsibility on behalf of the country, and I don’t care if it’s 90%, 80%, or 60%. I know I have openings and I don’t have the applicants.”

Yes, “lots of numbers” can clearly be confusing. But you’re running one of the more massive organizations in the federal government and are responsible for the health (and sometimes the lives) of our veterans. Don’t you suppose that a mastery of numbers might be a prerequisite for the job?