Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald defended his approach to cleaning house Thursday after the scheduling scandal that rocked his agency before he took office, saying his new firing authorities aren’t as broad as people might think.
Congress and President Obama this summer approved legislation to shorten the process for removing senior Department of Veterans Affairs executives after government reviews found that VA medical centers had fudged appointment data to hide treatment delays.
At a breakfast with reporters in Washington, McDonald noted that the new law shortened the appeal process to just a few weeks but didn’t give him authority to terminate employees without delay. (Yes, this was a McDonald breakfast, but not the kind that comes with hash browns).
“The law didn’t grant any kind of new power that would suddenly give me the ability to walk into a room and simply fire people,” he said. “Our Constitution provides for due process, and we are following the due process.”
Republican lawmakers including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (Fla.) have accused the VA of acting too slowly to remove officials deemed to be responsible for the record-keeping scandal. Miller has also raised concerns about the agency giving executives five days advanced notice before initiating their terminations.
The VA has said that Congress would need to pass additional legislation to stop the notices, which give employees a chance to respond to charges against them as part of civil-service protections.
McDonald on Thursday also addressed suggestions that his agency missed the deadline for issuing Veterans Choice Cards, a temporary new benefit from this summer’s VA law that allows former troops to obtain care outside the department’s hospital network if they have waited too long for an appointment or live far away from VA medical centers.
Instead of mailing all the cards out at once, the VA issued a first batch Wednesday to veterans who live at least 40 miles from the nearest agency clinic, and it plans to send out a second round of cards on Nov. 17 for those who have waited more than 30 days for an appointment.
“The law didn’t specify which cards would go out on which days,” McDonald said. “Laws generally are not that clear.”
The VA legislation says that “the Secretary shall, not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, issue to each [eligible veteran] a card that may be presented to a health care provider to facilitate the receipt of care or services under this section.”
Friday is the 90-day mark, so a case could be made that the VA will have missed the deadline by the time it issues the second round of cards later this month. Agency officials have said that rushing the program could led to problems.
McDonald said he worked closely with congressional committees to determine how to best implement the program after the law was passed.
“I had separate meetings and went through the law to find out what we needed to correct,” the secretary said. “At the time, there were no ideas on how to best execute this.”
Veterans groups have offered mixed reactions to the phased rollout. In a statement Wednesday, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America expressed disappointment with the approach, calling it “another fumbled opportunity to deliver for our nation’s veterans.”
Ian DePlanque, legislative director for the American Legion, said his organization is mostly concerned about the whether the program functions properly and whether the VA explains it clearly to veterans.
“At least this is moving forward,” he said. “But I absolutely understand the frustration of people who have been waiting for more than 30 days and find out they’re not in first group. It has to be incredibly frustrating for them.”