Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 15, 2014.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 15, 2014. Cliff Owen/AP

VA Chief Says He Does Fire Poor Performers -- Thousands of Them

Shinseki points to record of 6,000 terminations, transfers and forced retirements during a heated congressional hearing on mismanagement.

The Veterans Affairs Department has forced out more than 6,000 employees over the last two years, agency Secretary Eric Shinseki told Congress on Thursday.

Lawmakers on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee questioned the department’s accountability amid reports of long waits and preventable deaths at the agency’s medical facilities, challenging the agency to fire more poorly performing employees.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., pointed to reports that VA employees were “gaming the system” to hide the backlog in patient care, and asked what was being done about it. Shinseki said VA has forced out -- either through transfers, terminations or involuntary retirements -- 3,000 workers in each of the last two years, some of whom were senior executives.

Data from the Office of Personnel Management show about 4,300 VA employees were removed or terminated from federal service for disciplinary reasons, but that figure does not include forced transfers or retirements. House Speaker John Boehner recently threw his weight behind a bill to give Shinseki enhanced authority to fire senior executives.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said allowing employees to transfer to different parts of government or even to different agencies was not a sufficient punishment.

“If they’re cheating, they’re not trustworthy,” he said. “If you transfer them to another part of government you just perpetuate what they have done.”

Begich added: “Sometimes you got to have some heads roll in order to get the system to shape up,” and demanded an answer from Shinseki regarding whether he would fire anyone in the future for cooking the books.

The secretary, however, was reluctant to give a definitive answer.

“There’s a process here senator,” Shinseki said. “Let me not get out ahead of it.” Generally speaking, Shinseki said he and Begich were “not in disagreement.”

Many lawmakers have called for Shinseki himself to step down, and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., asked the secretary -- himself a veteran -- why he has not resigned.

“I came here to make things better for veterans,” Shinseki said. “That was my appointment by the president. Every day I start out with the intent, in fact, to provide as much care and benefits to those I went to war with.”