The Washington Post fact checker team gave President Obama "Four Pinocchios" for claiming that his administration fired "a whole bunch of people" who were in charge of facilities at the Department of Veterans Affairs since the VA scandal began in 2014, determining that the statement was completely false.
Obama is not the only one accused of misleading the public about the number of people held accountable for manipulating patient wait-time data at the VA. Department Secretary Robert McDonald has twice received Four Pinocchio ratings for making similar claims.
The widow of Army veteran Barry Coates asked Obama at a CNN town hall two weeks ago when his administration would start holding VA employees and contracted doctors accountable.
"We heard a lot of promises about reform and accountability, but still nothing’s changed … When are we going to actually start holding these contracted doctors and the VA employees accountable?" the widow asked
Coates had been waiting for a colonoscopy for almost a year at a VA hospital before doctors discovered that he had Stage 4 cancer and was terminally ill. Coates’ family later sued the VA for misdiagnosing him with hemorrhoids. They reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount.
The VA scandal received national attention in 2014 when whistleblowers revealed that employees at the VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona were manipulating wait-time data that delayed access to healthcare. After inspection, the VA’s inspector general confirmed the allegations and revealed that there have been issues for several years. Congress then got involved and passed bipartisan legislation, the Post reported.
Congress passed the bipartisan Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 in response. The legislation, referred to as the "Choice Act," allowed more veterans to seek private care outside the VA system, and authorized McDonald to expedite disciplinary actions for senior executive service employees.
It was notoriously difficult to fire senior executives at the VA–which terminated executives at one-fourth the firing rate for all federal agencies from 2008 to 2013–and the goal was to allow the VA chief to replace bad actors quickly, especially ones connected to the wait-time scandal.
While the VA has terminated more than 4,095 employees since McDonald was confirmed to lead the VA at the end of July 2014, only three senior executives fitting Obama's "in charge" description at the facilities were fired under McDonald. The VA provided the Post with a breakdown of the actions they took under the Choice Act’s firing authority towards senior executives as of Oct. 3.
- Three employees removed.
- One 15-day suspension.
- One proposed removal that was reversed.
- Three employees retired or resigned with disciplinary process pending.
- Five employees resigned in lieu of an adverse action or before their disciplinary actions took place.
- Two employees were demoted, but their demotions were reversed by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.
The VA provides the House and Senate VA committees with regular updates regarding employee disciplinary actions that they take against senior executives.
As of Sept. 22, the data available at the time of the CNN town hall, the VA had proposed 12 senior executive service employees to be removed or demoted under the Choice Act firing authority. Five were successfully removed. Only one removal, of former Phoenix VA director Sharon Helman, was marked as "a case involving patient wait time." The VA attempted to discipline Helman for wait-time issues, but she ultimately was fired over failing to report thousands of dollars worth of gifts from a lobbyist.
After providing all the facts, Lee concluded that the Obama administration cannot spin the facts by saying that "a whole bunch of people" in charge of VA facilities were fired. Since August 2014, the VA proposed demotions or removals of 12 to 15 senior executives. However, only three to five senior executives were successfully removed, and only one of them was directly involved with patient wait time–but that was not even what got her fired. She was fired for ethics violations after she failed to report thousands of dollars in gifts from a lobbyist.
Obama said that he did not want to pretend that the VA was where it needed to be, but the Post determined he did just that by saying the VA removed "a whole bunch" of people in charge. The paper determined that only one to six people "in charge" of patient wait-time problems were actually removed, not "a whole bunch."