According to the 2017 and monthly Accountability Reports from the Veterans Administration, the agency has fired over 3,600 employees since January 1, 2017. The job descriptions of those dismissed run the full gamut, from cemetery caretakers to woodworkers to housekeepers. The job descriptions of the majority of firings are those involved in patient care.
During his campaign for office, President Trump complained that it was nearly impossible for the VA to let under-performing employees go from government service. This was not a claim without merit. Rank and file employees of the agency are members of the American Federation of Government Employees and as labor unions go, the AFGE was well-known for shielding its members from disciplinary actions that resulted in termination. One VA report submitted to Congress on this issue stated that an average of fifty-five days passed between the time a complaint against an employee was filed and when a determination was finally reached.
The cause of this upturn in terminations at the long-troubled VA is most likely due to the passage of the VA Accountability and Whistle Blower Protection Act, sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, and signed into law by the President on June 23 of last year. This was nearly three years after the 2014 scandal involving the VA hospital in Phoenix, AZ, where an investigation found at least thirty-five veterans had died waiting for care and administrators were filing false reports on meeting wait time goals of 14 days. The investigation into the situation in Phoenix revealed that they had been “gaming” the reporting on goal objectives since at least 2009. These goal performance metrics were tied to funding and bonuses for VA administrators at this hospital, so it was apparent that the fraud was systemic and came from the top — and, therefore, could not be attributed to sloppy record keeping.
Implementation of this new law has not been perfect. The Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection was under an interim director, Peter O’Roarke, for months, waiting for an appointee to be nominated by the President and approved by the Senate. During his tenure, the VA establishment appeared to be taking him on rather than cooperating.
O’Roarke was accused of demoting or dismissing numerous mid-level VA officials without apparent cause. News reporting made claims that these demotions and dismissals were for reasons of political loyalty rather than operational efficiency. Only a few weeks earlier, O’Roarke took the Inspector General’s Office to task for a negative report that cast VA leaders in a negative light for not turning over whistleblower and employee disciplinary records that were requested. The IG’s office made the statement that these records were required to ensure efforts were not being duplicated and that criminal complaints were being properly handled. O’Roarke fired back, stating, in effect, that it was not the responsibility of the IG to monitor such efforts for compliance, but to investigate upon sufficient cause that compliance was not being performed.
Looking at job descriptions of the people fired, there is a marked absence of administrators and supervisors among those terminated for cause. On speculation, it could mean that the new accountability act is being used primarily against the rank and file positions — or it could suggest it is being used to get rid of employees that could not be fired under the previous rules. Time will tell which is the case or if it is a combination of both. While firing employees in large numbers isn’t likely to improve patient care in the short-term, it could serve to effect a culture change at the VA critics would say is long overdue.
Every president in recent memory has come into office promising to reform the systemic, decades-old problems the VA has had delivering care to our veterans. It is too early to tell whether the new VA Accountability Act will have the desired effect reforming this agency, but at minimum the ability to remove non-performing employees should help. As Winston Churchill said after Rommel was beaten by British forces at the battle of El Alamein, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”