Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin VA Photo/ Robert Turtil

VA Failed to Give Required Background Checks to Thousands of Medical Personnel

Some investigations that were conducted took years to complete.

The Veterans Affairs Department is not following requirements to screen all of its medical professional staff, leading VA to employ 6,200 workers who have not received any background check.

An additional 10,400 employees, or one in eight workers hired by the Veterans Health Administration between 2012 and 2016, did not have their investigations conducted in a timely matter, according to an audit by the VA’s inspector general. Its findings were based on a sample of various VHA medical facilities. By failing to properly to investigate its employees, the IG said, VA was risking putting unqualified or otherwise problematic employees in charge of veterans health care.

“Due to the lack of governance and oversight of the personnel suitability program, VA cannot reliably attest to the suitability of its largest workforce, exposing veterans and employees to individuals who have not been properly vetted,” the IG said. “Unless controls are implemented and data are improved, VA and the public lack assurance that VHA has a properly investigated workforce appropriate for providing health care to our nation’s veterans.”

Most VA medical professionals, such as physicians, nurses, pharmacists and lab technicians, are required to undergo the lowest-level “tier one” investigation to verify their suitability for the job. The Office of Personnel Management conducts the review and sends its findings back to VA to determine if any “derogatory information” should disqualify employees from their position. Investigation results are then expected to be retained both at VA and OPM.

The IG found, however, that VHA was not initiating the investigations in about 6 percent of cases. Agency adjudicators were also not reviewing in a timely manner the investigations that were conducted, which federal regulations require to happen within 90 days. Some employees whose background checks were never initiated had been working at the department for several years, the IG found, despite the requirement for the reviews to begin within 14 days. At the Long Beach Medical Center in California, for example, adjudicators took an average of three years to complete the investigations that it did conduct.

Conducting the reviews in a timely manner is particularly important, the IG said, because VA can much more easily dismiss employees who have problematic backgrounds during their initial probationary period.

The auditors put the onus to ensure a proper background check process primarily on the VA's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Operations, Security and Preparedness (OSP), but also faulted VHA for failing to provide meaningful oversight, as it has been required to do since June of 2016. Current VA Secretary David Shulkin, who has been faulted in multiple recent IG reports and is reportedly in President Trump’s crosshairs, served as head of VHA during that period. Just three of the 18 facilities the IG audited conducted the mandatory quarterly reviews of their new employee background investigation programs.

OSP and VHA agreed to provide better monitoring and oversight of background checks for new employees. VHA facilities will provide corrective action plans and OSP will create performance metrics to ensure compliance. Both offices will evaluate their human capital allocations, which the IG said were severely lacking and contributed to the slow or non-existent investigations. OSP also agreed to better collect and track documents and data related to the reviews, which it had failed to consistently store.