What does it take for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire a rogue employee? That’s a question the Montgomery Advertiser asked after an agency employee allegedly drove a patient to a crack house and left him there overnight.
The newspaper, which serves Alabama’s second-largest city, said in a recent editorial that the VA’s response raises questions about “what constitutes a firing offense in the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System, if indeed anything.”
The VA employee — a peer-support specialist in the agency’s drug-addiction treatment program, of all things — now faces disciplinary action, but he is still on the payroll more than a year after the incident occurred, according to the Advertiser.
The worker allegedly drove a patient who was undergoing drug-addiction treatment to a crack house and helped him purchase illegal drugs, in addition to borrowing $600 from the man and using a government vehicle for personal business, according to an official review that was released in May 2013.
Investigators determined that the employee was granted permission to chauffer the patient for errands with an agency vehicle, but he instead went shopping for his own set of wheels. He received $225 in overtime pay for that day, the review found.
On a second trip, the worker again took care of personal business with a government vehicle and told the patient that he could hook him up with drugs, according to investigators.
The next day, the VA staffer drove the patient to a home that local law enforcement identified as a drug and prostitution den. Investigators found that the patient bought narcotics with the worker’s help and spent the night at the home, where he also received oral sex, they said.
The investigative report said the employee “interfered with the medical treatment plan” of the patient and exposed him to a “dangerous environment.” The patient was discharged from the VA program after failing a drug test following the incident.
The VA removed the worker from direct patient care duties in March 2013, when the events are alleged to have happened. This month, the agency initiated undisclosed disciplinary action against him.
The Advertiser editorial suggests that due process is taking too long for this employee, noting that taxpayers are still paying his salary. “Are we to believe that the matters identified in this case could not be dealt with and settled in more than a year’s time?” the editorial asked.
Congress last month approved legislation that gives the VA secretary greater authority to fire senior executives for wrongdoing and poor performance, responding to the recent widespread falsification of scheduling records that hid treatment delays at VA medical centers. The executives have one week to appeal the decisions with the Merit Systems Protection Board, which then has three weeks to issue a ruling.
The new policy was designed to help the VA address problems more quickly. “This case is powerful proof of just how great the need for that is,” the Advertiser said.
One caveat: the legislation does not provide greater authority for firing rank-and-file employees.
The VA this month placed the regional health network’s director and chief of staff on administrative leave while reviewing its medical centers in Montgomery and Tuskegee, Ala. The agency did not respond to questions about why the officials were placed on leave, so it is unclear whether the moves are related to the peer-support specialist’s alleged actions.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel recently found that a pulmonologist with the network falsified more than 1,200 patient records despite repeatedly being caught, according to a July report from the Advertiser. So that may have something to do with the agency placing those officials on leave.
Rep. Martha Roby and Sen. Richard Shelby, both of whom are Republicans representing Alabama, met with VA officials in Washington last week to discuss the clinics, according to an Advertiser report.
“It was a good meeting,” the newspaper quoted Roby saying. “We feel like they’re hearing us.”
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), chairman of the House subcommittee that handles oversight and investigations of the VA, sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald last week asking for an explanation of the agency’s decision regarding the peer-support specialist and whether it plans to pursue criminal charges against him.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the recent VA legislation gave the VA secretary greater authority to fire senior executives but did not change the policies for rank-and-file employees.