WASHINGTON — VA officials told lawmakers Thursday that it has been giving federal executives linked to its nationwide health care scandal more time to appeal firings because a new law aimed at faster terminations may violate their rights.
Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told a House oversight committee the agency is allowing executives targeted for termination an additional five days to make their case. He said the VA fears the massive overhaul law passed over the summer does not provide enough time and would result in firings being overturned by an appeals board.
Months after the overhaul law passed, the VA has proposed disciplinary action against about 42 executives but has not fired any managers linked to the manipulation of records to hide long wait times at veteran hospitals, including Sharon Helman, the director at the Phoenix clinic where the off-books scheduling scandal erupted. The lack of action has rankled some in Congress who want faster action to root out a widespread culture of wrongdoing that led to the problems.
"The case law is very clear that we have to provide a reasonable opportunity [for VA executives] to respond to charges," Gibson said.
The additional five days is not included in the law but was added after "clear and unequivocal" advice from VA legal counsel, he said. The overhaul passed in August streamlined an appeals process that often took many months and replaced it with one that can be completed in a month — one week for an executive to file an appeal and three weeks for an appeals board to rule on the appeal.
Gibson said the additional time was an effort by VA to square the requirements of the new law with legal precedent that indicated executives are entitled to a longer appeals window.
Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called the change an unnecessary new layer of bureaucracy that ignores the intent of Congress.
"The law is clear — it says they should be fired," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the veterans committee and a key architect of the VA overhaul law.
Miller said the agency does not appear to be taking the deep problems with employee misconduct seriously despite it blowing up into the biggest scandal in VA history. About 90 health care facilities across the country were found to have manipulated patient wait-time data and some doctors claimed vets may have died due to the delays.
"I am not seeing the corresponding efforts to see those involved held accountable for their actions," Miller said.
The Senate has also strongly criticized the lack of firings. VA Secretary Bob McDonald has said in recent weeks there have been no terminations due to ongoing criminal investigations by the FBI and due to the agency's efforts to compile cases against the employees.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, said he accepted Gibson's explanation for the slow progress on rooting out employee misconduct, but the public is becoming impatient for action at facilities such as the El Paso VA in his district.
O'Rourke asked Gibson how long it would take, "within this calendar year, within the next six months, to see the firings we are expecting?"
Gibson said he would check with VA staff and get back to the congressman.