The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is transitioning from a period of scandal to its greatest restructuring since it was originally founded, The Hill reports.
During the process, customer service has been listed by the agency as the key focus, specifically in the area of healthcare, where prior reports have showed that the VA buried evidence of absurdly long wait times just for patients to see a doctor.
Former Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May, to be replaced by Robert McDonald, who is intent on slashing wait times. McDonald noted that the average wait time since May has dropped from 51 days to 42, a modest shift. The goal is to bring the wait time down to 30 days. Critics meanwhile are still furious that only one senior executive has been fired so far, while others enjoy the benefits of paid administrative leave.
What pushed the agency over the edge and lead to Shinseki’s resignation was an inspector general report earlier in May, which found a serious miscarriage of justice at the VA Phoenix hospital.
Approximately 1,700 veterans were purposefully kept off patient rolls, and 40 others died from the wait. Instead of admitting their fault, wait time data was tampered with, changing the 115 day wait time for a doctor’s appointment to 24 days, in case anyone took the time to examine the records. However, the inspector general was less sure if it could be conclusively proven that wait times were responsible for the deaths.
Even after this scandal, Sharon Helman, director of the VA hospital in Phoenix, still has her job.
“If VA has the evidence needed to fire Sharon Helman, which it says it does, it should fire her,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said in a statement last week. “Keeping Helman and other Phoenix executives on the payroll when the department wants to fire them is nothing more than a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
“No one doubts that reforming VA is a tough job. But getting rid of failed executives should be the easiest part — not the most difficult,” Miller added.
But McDonald says what’s missing is not the will to fire, but rather the ability to fire, since regulations governing the bureaucracy make it notoriously difficult to get rid of executives and employees, even with a new law Congress passed over the summer. Still, McDonald has said that at least 35 employees could be penalized or fired, and 1,000 others may be subject to similar consequences.
“These laws are very clear, and I’m skeptical whether members of Congress don’t understand the law,” McDonald told reporters last week.
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