The Veterans Affairs Department proposed firing three top officials working at the epicenter of its scandal involving the manipulation of patient wait list data, though the announcement did not appear to quell concerns that VA has not responded to the malfeasance appropriately.
VA said Tuesday evening it issued notices of proposed removal to three senior employees at the Phoenix Health Care System: Associate Director Lance Robinson, Chief of Health Administrative Services Brad Curry and Chief of Staff Darren Deering. The department, which has frequently come under fire for its failure to discipline employees involved in the widespread mismanagement and misconduct, said the proposed actions would help it move forward and focus on improving services.
“It is vitally important to veterans in Phoenix and across the nation to understand that we will take appropriate accountability action as warranted by the evidence,” said VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson. “These cases have served as a distraction to the progress being made to improve the care we provide in Phoenix and across the nation. Today marks an important step in moving past the events of the past and refocusing solely on caring for our nation’s veterans.”
Two of the employees -- Robinson and Curry -- were placed on paid administrative leave on May 1, 2014, while they were under investigation. The two employees returned to work in different positions in January after repeated attempts by the House Veterans' Affairs Committee to ascertain information on the employees’ statuses.
Thanks in part to that criticism, VA shifted its policy to ensure employees under investigation would be placed in non-patient care positions instead of floundering in administrative leave status. Both chambers of Congress are currently considering legislation to curb use of paid leave for employees under investigation governmentwide.
None of the employees provisionally fired on Tuesday are eligible for the expedited process authorized by the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act President Obama signed into law in 2014. Robison and Curry are General Schedule employees, while Deering, as a medical professional, falls under Title 38 of the U.S. Code. VA can hasten the firing process under the choice act only for Title 5 Senior Executive Service employees.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the loudest opponent to VA’s handling of its workforce since the patient data manipulation was unearthed, applauded the firing while still calling it too little, too late.
“We cannot forget the fact that it took nearly two years of investigations just to get to this point, and this is just the beginning of the disciplinary process,” Miller said. “The truth is, because of arcane civil service protections that put the job security of corrupt bureaucrats before the safety of veterans, it will take many months and possibly years for VA to complete these proposed disciplinary actions.”
Miller, who coauthored the choice act and has consistently called for VA to fire more employees connected to the scandal, said Tuesday’s announcement should serve as a “wakeup call” to overhaul the entire civil service system. He called on the Senate to pass the 2015 VA Accountability Act, which would extend the expedited firing process to all VA employees. Efforts by Republicans in the upper chamber to pass the Senate version of the bill by unanimous consent last year were blocked by Democrats.
Gibson, who used his time as interim VA secretary to call for more unilateral firing authority, seemed to echo Miller’s complaint that the disciplinary process was overly burdened by red tape.
“Frankly,” Gibson said, “I am disappointed that it took as long as it did for proposed actions to be made but I am satisfied that we carefully reviewed a massive amount of evidence to ensure the accountability actions are supported.”
Curry and Robinson now have 30 days to appeal their terminations to the Merit Systems Protection Board. After the administrative law judge makes an initial decision, the employees or department can appeal to the central, three-person board. That decision can then be further appealed in federal court. Miller is calling on the timeline associated with the first step to be shortened and the latter two steps to be eliminated entirely.
Implementation of the choice act, which follows that model for senior executives, has proven tricky, however. Three of VA’s recent proposed firings under the law were overturned by MSPB, with administrative judges concluding there was not sufficient evidence to warrant the punishments.
Curry and Robinson’s former boss, Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix system, was successfully fired under the choice act. MSPB upheld the decision because of improper gifts Helman accepted, however, and not because of misconduct related to manipulating patient data to conceal excessive wait times.
Government Executive in February obtained a draft proposal issued by VA Secretary Bob McDonald to move all senior executives at the department to Title 38, thereby eliminating their appeal rights while loosening hiring restrictions and boosting pay for some of the top-level managers. On Tuesday, VA partially backed away from that proposal, saying only senior executives at the Veterans Health Administration should be taken out of Title 5 and the protections it provides. The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee is currently working on an “omnibus package” of VA reforms, including the reclassification of VA’s executives.