Republicans Want to Fire Someone to Stop Preventable Veteran Deaths

But VA officials warn against widespread punishment for what they see as a limited problem.

National Journal
April 9, 2014, 1:26 p.m.

Army vet­er­an Barry Coates went to a clin­ic run by the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment in Novem­ber 2010 suf­fer­ing from severe ab­dom­in­al pain. He said that more than a year later, after mul­tiple re­quests for a colono­scopy, he fi­nally re­ceived the pro­ced­ure — only to dis­cov­er he had stage-four can­cer.

Coates, who is ter­min­ally ill, test­i­fied be­fore the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day as part of a look by law­makers in­to the rash of pre­vent­able deaths at VA clin­ics and hos­pit­als. The most re­cent re­port, re­leased earli­er this week, linked 23 vet­er­ans’ deaths to delays in can­cer treat­ment. Chair­man Jeff Miller and oth­er com­mit­tee mem­bers said that num­ber could be closer to 40.

And Miller and oth­er House Re­pub­lic­ans made clear Wed­nes­day that at least one thing must be done im­me­di­ately: Someone should be fired.

Miller’s le­gis­la­tion would make the pro­cess for fir­ing high-rank­ing civil ser­vants largely the same as fir­ing con­gres­sion­al staffers — who are con­sidered at-will em­ploy­ees. That would mean tak­ing away the no­ti­fic­a­tion and abil­ity to ap­peal dis­cip­lin­ary de­cisions cur­rently offered.

Re­pub­lic­ans lamen­ted that, to their know­ledge, no one tied to vet­er­an deaths had been ter­min­ated, and that em­ploy­ees must be held ac­count­able.

But while every Demo­crat­ic mem­ber ac­know­ledged that something must be done to de­term­ine how to pre­vent these deaths, they stopped short of back­ing the le­gis­la­tion.

“It is in­cum­bent upon all of us here to make sure the VA is ac­count­able,” said Cali­for­nia Demo­crat Ju­lia Brown­ley, who hasn’t yet thrown her sup­port be­hind the le­gis­la­tion. And Rep. Raul Ruiz, also from Cali­for­nia, re­com­men­ded that com­mit­tee mem­bers com­mis­sion a study to com­pare pre­vent­able deaths and cases of neg­li­gence with­in the VA to rates with­in top private hos­pit­als.

The VA is push­ing back on the le­gis­la­tion as well. VA Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki told law­makers last week that he has the tools he needs to make sure VA per­son­nel are ad­equately do­ing their jobs.

And Thomas Lynch, as­sist­ant deputy un­der­sec­ret­ary for health for clin­ic­al op­er­a­tions at the Vet­er­ans Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion, echoed those com­ments, say­ing: “I un­der­stand your con­cern “¦ re­gard­ing ac­count­ab­il­ity.”¦ I’m troubled a little bit about wheth­er or not fir­ing some­body is ne­ces­sar­ily the an­swer.”

But the com­mit­tee’s Re­pub­lic­ans did not budge.

In­di­ana Re­pub­lic­an Jack­ie Wal­or­ski, whose fath­er died of colon can­cer, broke in­to tears while ques­tion­ing Coates. She called the VA “a bur­eau­crat­ic sys­tem that is broken.”

And the com­mit­tee mem­bers have a power­ful ally in their quest to help the VA clean house. House Speak­er John Boehner told re­port­ers earli­er this month that “the sec­ret­ary needs to have more au­thor­ity to man­age his own de­part­ment. It’s as simple as that,” adding that he be­lieves the VA is fail­ing vet­er­ans and their fam­il­ies.

And though Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats on the com­mit­tee have not come to­geth­er on VA fir­ings, they all agreed on one thing: The VA needs to be more forth­com­ing with Con­gress.

Miller said that the com­mit­tee has been wait­ing for months on in­form­a­tion about vet­er­ans’ deaths that are tied to VA care, and sev­er­al mem­bers said that when prob­lems at the VA arise, law­makers are giv­en calm and gen­er­al re­sponses versus spe­cif­ic ways the de­part­ment is mov­ing for­ward.

“It’s just my feel­ing and my only con­clu­sion that I can come to “¦ is that there is something that you don’t want the pub­lic to hear,” Brown­ley said.

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