“Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary. We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times.”
— Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, NBC “Meet the Press” interview, Feb. 15, 2015
These figures from McDonald’s first Sunday TV show interview seemed to be a bombshell revelation in the aftermath of the wait-time manipulation scandal at Veterans Affairs medical facilities.
McDonald was appointed secretary late July 2014, amid whistleblower allegations that employees were falsifying and manipulating patient records. McDonald vowed to turn the agency around and hold employees accountable — and since then, has faced pressure from families, veterans groups and congressional members for not firing bad actors quickly enough.
Tensions surfaced recently during a hearing on the agency’s budget, when he fired back at Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) about whether he was doing enough to change the agency’s culture. Until McDonald’s TV interview, fewer than a dozen employees and senior executives were known to have been removed from their posts.
Has McDonald fired 60 people for manipulating wait times? And what should we make of the 900 employees in total he says he fired since becoming secretary?
The VA scandal unfolded after whistleblower allegations that dozens of veterans died at the Phoenix VA while waiting for care. During a House hearing, the VA Office of Inspector General acknowledged that wait lists may have contributed to the veterans’ deaths. (The Fact Checker previously checked claims on deaths related to delayed access to health care at the Phoenix VA hospital.)
Patient and appointment record falsifications and manipulations were then found to be a systemic, years-long problem. Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned as more allegations surfaced.
Two days after McDonald took office, Congress passed legislation allowing more veterans to seek private care outside the VA system and authorizing McDonald to expedite disciplinary actions for senior executives. It was notoriously difficult to fire senior executives at the VA — which terminated executives at one-fourth the firing rate for all federal agencies from 2008 to 2013, according to CNN — and the goal was to allow the VA chief to replace bad actors quickly, especially ones connected to the scandal.
In his “Meet the Press” interview, McDonald also said 100 senior leaders are under investigation by the inspector general and the Department of Justice.
Yet McDonald is incorrect in saying that 60 employees who manipulated wait times were fired.
Disciplinary actions for 75 employees have been proposed since June 3, 2014, according to the VA’s most recent weekly briefing to the House and Senate committees on veterans affairs. These actions were related to patient scheduling, record manipulation, appointment delays and/or patient deaths. The proposed actions included removals, admonishment (a written letter of censure), reprimand (a stronger letter of censure), suspension of less than two weeks and probationary termination. Admonishment or reprimand letters can be removed from employees’ personnel files after two or three years. (Definitions for disciplinary actions are here.)
Of the 75 employees, only eight employees have actually been removed, as of Feb. 13, 2015. Twenty-three cases were pending. Five employees resigned before a decision was made on their case. Others were demoted, were on probationary termination, had some other disciplinary action, or had no action taken at all.
McDonald used his new personnel authority to propose removals of five executives — in Phoenix, Georgia, central Alabama, Pittsburgh and the VA central area office in Washington. Two retired before they could be removed, and three were actually fired. But of those three terminations, only one was officially related to the VA scandal — James Talton, director of Central Alabama’s VA.
Phoenix VA’s Sharon Helman, whose hospital was at the center of the scandal and who was found to have known of data-manipulation problems for at least two years, was placed on administrative leave for seven months and eventually fired for inappropriately accepting gifts. Pittsburgh VA’s Terry Gerigk Wolf was removed for “conduct unbecoming a senior executive” and wasteful spending.
“Regarding the 60 figure, it is most accurate to say that ‘VA has proposed disciplinary action related to data manipulation or patient care against more than 60 employees nationwide.’ This takes into account the full range of accountability actions including admonishments, demotions, reprimands, and termination,” wrote VA spokesman James Hutton to The Fact Checker.
As for the 900 employees being fired since mid-2014, Hutton said those employees have been fired for cause “either through removal action or during a probationary period.” Most of the 900 employees were with the Veterans Health Administration, and vary in location, pay grades and reasons, Hutton said. Reasons include poor performance and absenteeism.
But to McDonald’s point that he is cleaning up shop, the 900 figure lacks context. Senior executives have known problems existed there, and the 900 employees are not those executives.
[Update: A breakdown of the 900 “firings" published by PolitiFact shows about half of the employees in this count were terminations of probationary employees who have been at the VA for less than a year. It is unclear how those employees can be “held accountable" for a scandal that has existed for years before they were hired by the agency.]
The VA is the largest non-military Cabinet agency, with more than 340,000 employees as of September 2014. That means even if 900 employees were fired, they accounted for less than 0.3 percent of all VA employees. Plus, in fiscal year 2013, there were 2,247 VA employees fired in one year, which was two and half times more than McDonald’s 900 figure — and that was before a massive systemic problem was found. (Thanks to data editor Ted Mellnik for crunching the numbers.)
The Pinocchio Test
Recommending people to receive a letter about their wrongdoing is not the same thing as being fired. Recommending people to be fired is not the same thing as being fired. Employees are not fired unless they have been removed from their jobs — and as of two days before McDonald went on the air, there were eight employees who were removed for manipulating patient wait-time data. So McDonald’s statement is incorrect.
The 900-employee figure does not have much meaning in this context, given the size of the agency and the focus on holding senior executives accountable. Only three of the five executives he proposed for removal using his new authority were actually removed, and the other two were forced into retirement. Five top executives leaving their posts in six months is a record pace for the VA, but only one was officially removed in relation to the scandal. Whether resigning under pressure should be counted as being “held accountable” or being fired — well, McDonald may know better about that himself.
The public expects accuracy as the agency works to restore credibility. It is especially important for McDonald to be precise about his terminology — and to provide truthful information to the public. He earns Four Pinocchios for wildly inflating his “firing” statistics.
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