In February, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald claimed that 60 people had been fired for manipulating wait times. But the actual number of employees fired in relation to the scandal was eight, thus earning McDonald Four Pinocchios. Since then, others have reported that the actual number of people fired specifically for manipulating patient wait times may be smaller than eight.
During a recent speech on domestic policy issues, Jeb Bush, a GOP presidential candidate, offered a number that was even lower: two. Is he correct?
The VA scandal unfolded after whistleblower allegations that dozens of veterans died at the Phoenix VA while waiting for care. The VA Office of Inspector General confirmed whistleblower allegations that employees at the Phoenix VA Health Care System were manipulating patient wait-time data, leading to delays in access to health care and contributing to patient deaths. (The Fact Checker previously checked claims on deaths related to delayed access to health care at the Phoenix VA.)
In May, Bush said that “one person has been fired” at the VA for “withholding services.” His campaign had said that Bush was referring to former VA secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned amid the whistleblower allegations. PolitiFact rated his statement Mostly False, noting that the actual number of removals relating to “withholding services” was higher.
The VA provides regular updates of disciplinary action so the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and its disciplinary reports, included proposed and completed actions for various levels of employees, “on any basis related to patient scheduling, record manipulation, appointment delays, and/or patient deaths.” So until recently, the VA released disciplinary data under this broad category.
Bush’s most recent reference to the VA scandal was a more refined talking point. He said two people had been fired for “lying about the wait times,” or wait-time data manipulation.
In response to the House committee’s request, the VA began further breaking down the disciplinary actions. Starting in June, the VA began indicating exactly which disciplinary actions were cases “involving patient wait-time manipulation.” So this is a subset of the broader disciplinary actions taken against employees relating to the VA scandal.
Critics have focused on the VA’s actions against employees responsible for manipulating patient wait-time data, which emerged as a systemic practice at the VA.
As of July 16 — the most current report available by the time Bush gave his speech on July 20 — the VA’s report showed that the agency had proposed disciplinary action against 194 employees in relation to patient scheduling, record manipulation, appointment delays and/or patient deaths. Out of 194, six were senior executives and 19 were probationary employees who had been at the VA for less than a year. It is unclear how these probationary employees can be considered a part of the scandal, which had existed for years before they were hired by the VA.
Among the 194 employees, the VA had proposed and/or completed disciplinary actions against 14 people whose cases involved patient wait-time manipulation. Of the 14, two were successfully removed. Sharon Helman, the Phoenix VA medical center director, also is marked as successfully removed. But Helman ultimately was fired for accepting improper gifts, not because of her role in wait-time manipulation. Two others resigned in lieu of adverse actions.
The subsequent VA report from July 23 showed disciplinary actions proposed and/or completed against 207 employees. Of them, 15 were directly related to wait-time manipulation. Of the 15, three were successfully removed. The fourth was Helman. Two others, still, had resigned in lieu of adverse actions. The VA confirmed on July 31 that this was the most recent information for removals related to wait-time manipulation. However, the overall number of proposed and/or completed actions grew to 211, according to the VA.
“VA provides the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees with a weekly listing of adverse employment actions initiated since June 3, 2014 on any basis related to patient scheduling, record manipulation, appointment delays, and/or patient deaths. … This report reflects only a small subset of adverse employment actions initiated by the Department during the relevant time period,” the VA said in a statement.
The Pinocchio Test
The number of disciplinary actions against VA employees in relation to the 2014 scandal has changed depending on the new information the VA has provided in recent months. The VA has now provided more detailed data than it has in the past.
It should be noted that the number of firings for wait-time data manipulation has grown to three since Bush said this statement. There are two others who resigned in lieu of an adverse action, and another who ultimately was fired for accepting improper gifts, not the wait-time scandal.
But when Bush used this figure and the specific type of wait-time manipulation firing he was referring to on July 20, he got the talking point right. And he retooled it after citing the figure incorrectly earlier this year. For that, he earns the elusive Geppetto Checkmark.
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