VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson Jose Luis Magana/AP

VA Officials Say They're Trying to Fire People, But It's Still Really Hard

Department already wants to reform 2014 reforms.

Lawmakers grilled representatives from the Veterans Affairs Department and its health care partners on the underuse of the new law allowing certain veterans to receive private treatment on the government’s dime, while still managing to toss in some complaints on the department’s lack of firing. 

The House Veterans Affairs Committee held the hearing on Wednesday ostensibly to assess the “progress of the choice program” created by the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, but wound up diving into an array of perceived management deficiencies at VA. Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson spoke of the need to hold employees accountable and to institute a “cultural change” at the department, but lawmakers were unimpressed with the developments at VA since they passed sweeping reform legislation last year.

Gibson repeatedly asked for help from Congress to streamline the various means through which veterans can receive “care in the community,” otherwise known as private care outside VA’s own facilities. The former acting secretary requested flexibility in using the funds allocated for the choice program -- available to those who live more than 40 miles from a facility or who have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment -- to pay for already existing programs at VA.

VA is on pace to spend $10 billion on private care for veterans in fiscal 2015, Gibson said, a sum the department cannot sustain. Additionally, the six or seven various programs through which vets can receive private care have created an unworkable system too confusing for patients and employees alike.

Committee members were reluctant to show any sympathy for VA, noting the choice program was designed to be a temporary supplement, not a means by which to support other budget shortfalls.

“You have a budget,” said committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. “You have made decisions that busted that budget.” Miller added if VA were granted authority to reallocate choice program funds, it would drain the money for the program much more quickly than expected.

“Somebody’s got to get better at forecasting,” Miller told Gibson.

The deputy secretary attempted to appease lawmakers’ concerns, saying VA was working tirelessly to promote the choice program. The number of veterans eligible for private care under the new law recently doubled after the department expanded the distance definition. He said VA is soon sending out a letter to all eligible veterans to remind them they can participate and will start a social media push, among other initiatives.

Asked whether it was too difficult for VA to fire employees involved in the wait list manipulation scandal that led to the passage of the choice law, Gibson conceded that compared to his private sector experience, “it’s hard to hire and it’s hard to fire” in federal government.

“I think that’s the case across federal government,” Gibson said, adding he will use every tool at his disposal to hold employees accountable.

The 2014 law included a provision to make it easier for the department to fire senior executives, though -- much to the chagrin of Miller and others -- officials have used the new authority sparingly. Gibson said the slow progress was attributable to the standards created by the federal employee appeals system. He stressed, however, that dozens of cases involving malfeasant employees are still under review and VA will work until it gets to “every single one of them.”

Asked about accusations of retaliation against whistleblowers, Gibson said “bullying, intimidation and retaliation are absolutely unacceptable.”

“We will not change the culture of the VA unless we hold people accountable,” Gibson said. “That’s why this gets as much of my attention as it does.”