VA secretary lies about number of employees disciplined in wait time scandal

Veterans Affairs secretary Robert McDonald told a luncheon crowd at the National Press Club that 300 VA employees had been disciplined for their roles in the scandal involving wait times for vets to get treatment at VA hospitals.  This directly contradicts the VA's own numbers, which say 24 employees were disciplined.

Washington Examiner:

A list of disciplinary actions the VA provided to Congress indicates just 24 employees have faced actual or proposed punishment in cases "involving patient wait time manipulation."

Government managers can fire federal employees for poor performance or misconduct under Title 5 of the U.S. Code (Chapters 43 and 75). It’s easier to dismiss someone for misbehaving— showing up to work drunk, for example—than it is for mediocre performance, which is subject to interpretation and rarely yields a smoking gun. “It comes down to judgment, so it’s easier to challenge a performance-based action,” says Henry Romero, who was associate director for workforce compensation and performance at OPM during the Clinton administration. Managers also must give employees the opportunity and time to improve if subpar work performance is the problem. 

In a 2009 report, MSPB said that complexities involved in performance management—not the law—present the greatest challenge to handling poor performers. “The agency is required to articulate a performance expectation, measure it and document the extent to which the employee has failed to meet expectations,” said the report. “According to an MSPB survey of proposing and deciding officials, this is where the actions become difficult. Our survey respondents told us that supervisors have difficulty creating standards for performance and documenting how well employees are meeting those standards.”

Even in instances where conduct rather than performance is the issue, agencies often place employees on administrative leave while an investigation unfolds and the government affords the employee due process. So firing a federal employee typically involves a lot of things most managers try to avoid: paperwork, confrontation and the prospect of being overruled by the agency or MSPB.

The MSPB is the Merit System Protection Board – a cruel joke of a name if there ever was one.  The terminations of VA employees was overturned by the MSPB; apparently, altering documents so that managers can get bonuses doesn't fit the definition of a termination offense.

Bills to make it easier to fire VA employees have passed the House but remain bottled up in the Senate.  Meanwhile, employees of the VA who helped defraud the American taxpayer remain on the payroll.

Veterans Affairs secretary Robert McDonald told a luncheon crowd at the National Press Club that 300 VA employees had been disciplined for their roles in the scandal involving wait times for vets to get treatment at VA hospitals.  This directly contradicts the VA's own numbers, which say 24 employees were disciplined.

Washington Examiner:

A list of disciplinary actions the VA provided to Congress indicates just 24 employees have faced actual or proposed punishment in cases "involving patient wait time manipulation."

While the list does indicate nearly 300 people have been subject to actual or suggested discipline, most of them do not relate to the wait time scandal, as McDonald indicated.

"We've proposed disciplinary action against 300 individuals for manipulating scheduling," the VA secretary said during a luncheon at the National Press Club Friday.

Just a few minutes later, McDonald said he hoped the VA's numbers would be examined more closely.

"I'm always glad when veterans issues are raised, I just wish there would be more fact-checking on some of the numbers that are used," he said.

In some of the 24 cases cited on the disciplinary action list, employees implicated in the wait time scandal received a lighter punishment than what the VA initially proposed.

For example, a medical assistant who had been recommended for termination was merely suspended for less than two weeks. Similarly, a top health administrator was only demoted, even though the VA recommended termination.

McDonald replaced retired General Eric Shinseki, who was allowed to resign following revelations that hundreds of veterans had died waiting for medical care and dozens of VA employees cooked the books to hide that fact. 

Just what does it take to get fired from the VA, much less any government job? 

Government managers can fire federal employees for poor performance or misconduct under Title 5 of the U.S. Code (Chapters 43 and 75). It’s easier to dismiss someone for misbehaving— showing up to work drunk, for example—than it is for mediocre performance, which is subject to interpretation and rarely yields a smoking gun. “It comes down to judgment, so it’s easier to challenge a performance-based action,” says Henry Romero, who was associate director for workforce compensation and performance at OPM during the Clinton administration. Managers also must give employees the opportunity and time to improve if subpar work performance is the problem. 

In a 2009 report, MSPB said that complexities involved in performance management—not the law—present the greatest challenge to handling poor performers. “The agency is required to articulate a performance expectation, measure it and document the extent to which the employee has failed to meet expectations,” said the report. “According to an MSPB survey of proposing and deciding officials, this is where the actions become difficult. Our survey respondents told us that supervisors have difficulty creating standards for performance and documenting how well employees are meeting those standards.”

Even in instances where conduct rather than performance is the issue, agencies often place employees on administrative leave while an investigation unfolds and the government affords the employee due process. So firing a federal employee typically involves a lot of things most managers try to avoid: paperwork, confrontation and the prospect of being overruled by the agency or MSPB.

The MSPB is the Merit System Protection Board – a cruel joke of a name if there ever was one.  The terminations of VA employees was overturned by the MSPB; apparently, altering documents so that managers can get bonuses doesn't fit the definition of a termination offense.

Bills to make it easier to fire VA employees have passed the House but remain bottled up in the Senate.  Meanwhile, employees of the VA who helped defraud the American taxpayer remain on the payroll.