Prosecuting VA Officials Would Be ‘Shot Heard Around the System’

Sixty-nine VA facilities — not including Phoenix — are under investigation by the VA’s inspector general’s office.

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 08: Exterior view of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on May 8, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Department of Veteran Affairs has come under fire after reports of the deaths of 40 patients forced to wait for medical care at the Phoenix VA hopsital.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
June 10, 2014, 1:28 a.m.

Want to get the at­ten­tion of staffers at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment dur­ing the ever-grow­ing health care scan­dal? Fire a few top of­fi­cials or charge them for their crimes as a warn­ing to oth­ers.

That was a solu­tion offered by law­makers from both parties on Monday at a hear­ing on Cap­it­ol Hill, where a push to pun­ish VA of­fi­cials was seen as a way to stop the crisis from get­ting worse.

“I think a few high-pro­file pro­sec­u­tions would clean things rather dra­mat­ic­ally,” Demo­crat­ic Rep. Ann McLane Kuster of New Hamp­shire said at a House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee hear­ing Monday even­ing.

It re­mains to be seen wheth­er the Justice De­part­ment thinks that al­leg­a­tions of al­ter­ing the wait times for vet­er­ans to re­ceive care rises to the level of a crim­in­al pro­sec­u­tion. But Richard Griffin, the act­ing VA’s in­spect­or gen­er­al, said Monday that fir­ing or pro­sec­ut­ing someone for al­ter­ing a vet­er­an’s re­cords, or chan­ging a timeline to help meet a per­form­ance meas­ure, would be the “shot heard around the sys­tem.”

The hear­ing comes as an in­tern­al audit re­leased by the VA on Monday found that ap­prox­im­ately 57,000 vet­er­ans had been wait­ing 90 days or more for an ap­point­ment, and that more than 63,000 vet­er­ans en­rolled in VA care but nev­er had an ap­point­ment.

Griffin ad­ded that in­vest­ig­at­ors have been sent to 69 fa­cil­it­ies — not in­clud­ing Phoenix — to in­vest­ig­ate al­leg­a­tions, in­clud­ing those of crim­in­al wrong­do­ing. But he stressed that they are cur­rently just al­leg­a­tions.

“… You have to work your way back up the su­per­vis­ory chain to de­term­ine who put the or­der out,” Griffin said. “It’s not an easy task. I sus­pect that if people do start get­ting charged, that middle per­son will say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not go­ing to take the fall here for some­body high­er up than me.’ “

The scan­dal has kick-star­ted a slew of le­gis­la­tion. The House passed a bill Monday ur­ging VA of­fi­cials to act swiftly on an re­forms re­com­men­ded by the in­spect­or gen­er­al.

That’s in ad­di­tion to a bill the House passed last month that would make it easi­er for Act­ing Sec­ret­ary Sloan Gib­son to fire seni­or VA of­fi­cials. On the op­pos­ite side of the Hill, Sen­ate Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bernie Sanders in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion Monday with Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain. Among oth­er things, the bi­par­tis­an duo’s pro­pos­al would al­low the VA to boost its hir­ing, in­crease vet­er­ans ac­cess to non-VA health care, and — un­like the House bil — give em­ploy­ees a week to ap­peal a fir­ing.

Monday’s hear­ing largely marked a shift in tone from the com­mit­tee’s fre­quently com­bat­ive hear­ing last week, with law­makers even thank­ing VA of­fi­cials for their candor on the scope of the VA’s prob­lems.

Philip Matkovsky, as­sist­ant deputy un­der­sec­ret­ary for health for ad­min­is­trat­ive op­er­a­tions, said the wait times re­por­ted by the VA could ac­tu­ally get worse as Con­gress con­tin­ues its probe, be­cause the as­sess­ments “would be rooted in real­ity.”

But law­makers still fo­cused in on a slew of VA prob­lems, in­clud­ing out­dated tech­no­logy that de­part­ment of­fi­cials say goes back 20 to 30 years, and a lack of con­gres­sion­al over­sight. And law­makers, like most Amer­ic­ans ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll, re­mained skep­tic­al of the VA.

“There is no ac­count­ab­il­ity here, there is com­pla­cency here.”¦ People need to get fired, we need to make that hap­pen,” Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Dan Ben­ishek of Michigan said.

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