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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fired Over VA Wait Times

Speaking at a CNN town hall about the military, President Barack Obama suggested that his administration “fired a whole bunch of people who were in charge of some of these facilities” involved in the wait-times scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s not the case.

As of Sept. 22, a few days before Obama’s remark on Sept. 28, only nine people had been fired from the VA for issues pertaining to patient wait times, according to VA documents. Of those nine, four were senior officials at one facility — the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

That doesn’t sound like “a whole bunch of people who were in charge” were fired considering USA Today reported in April that its analysis of 70 investigative reports found that employees at 40 VA facilities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico manipulated data indicating how long veterans waited for appointments. And in at least seven states, USA Today said, supervisors instructed employees to falsify data.

In response to a question posed by the widow of an Army veteran who died from cancer after waiting over a year for a colonoscopy, Obama talked about “progress” the department has made since 2014, when the VA Office of the Inspector General confirmed allegations of widespread manipulation of patient wait times at veterans hospitals across the country. Obama said that “we have in fact fired a whole bunch of people who were in charge of some of these facilities” where veterans waited long periods of time to receive care.

Donna Coates, widow of Army veteran, Sept. 28: Mr. President, I stand before you today with my husband’s flag because it was always his desire to meet you, and sadly he never got a chance. However, two years ago, (inaudible) testified in front of Congress, and we heard a lot of promises about reforms in accountability, but still, nothing has changed. In fact, the contracted doctor that misdiagnosed my husband is still treating our veterans at the same VA clinic.

My mamma’s always told me that if you stop talking about stuff and do it, then you don’t have to talk about it any longer. So when are we going to actually start holding these contracted doctors and the VA employees accountable? For it’s a difference between life and death. And families like mine, they’re tired of waiting. And the only true change that’s come since we began talking was that I am now a widow. And my family, we will never be the same.

Obama: Well first of all, my heart goes out to you. I heard the testimony of your husband. Bob McDonald, the head of the VA, heard that testimony, and because we can’t bring your husband back, I don’t want to in any way sugar coat the fact that there have been significant problems in the VA that have accumulated over decades. And the incidents that we saw in South Carolina, the incidents that we saw in Phoenix, I think were inexcusable, but they were also an indication that you have a system, a bureaucracy that had gotten overwhelmed, built up over time. And now when you have a lot more veterans coming home, needing treatment, even with some of the improvements that were made, there were still inexcusable wait times.

Now, we have actually made progress. And again, I don’t want to in any way pretend that we’re where we need to be. But we have in fact fired a whole bunch of people who were in charge of some of these facilities.

We contacted the White House to get clarification on Obama’s comment, but we didn’t get a response. Internal VA documents show that few people were fired on the basis of patient wait times.

There were seven facility directors who were fired or resigned or retired in lieu of being fired. But the VA indicated that only one of those was related to the issue of wait times.

The House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees receive weekly reports from the VA on “adverse employment actions initiated since June 3, 2014 on any basis related to patient scheduling, record manipulation, appointment delays, and/or patient deaths.”

That is overly broad, so at the request of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the VA started pointing out employment actions in cases directly involving patient wait times. And only nine employees, including one on probationary status, had been let go for that reason, according to the Sept. 22 report provided to FactCheck.org. That was the most recent report at the time of the CNN town hall.

In addition, two employees retired or resigned before being fired, and nine more whom the VA proposed firing received lesser punishments or no punishment at all. One other employee’s removal was listed as pending.

Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System who was fired in November 2014, is listed as an employment action involving patient wait times. But Helman’s termination was upheld, not because of wait times, but because she failed to report on financial disclosure forms gifts she had received from a lobbyist.

In addition to Helman, three other senior officials at the Phoenix VA Health System “were removed for negligent performance of duties and failure to provide effective oversight for not ensuring veterans were either properly scheduled for appointments or placed on an appropriate wait list,” according to a VA statement. They were: Lance Robinson, associate director of the Phoenix VA Health System; Brad Curry, the chief of Health Administration Service; and Dr. Darren Deering, the hospital’s chief of staff.

According to the VA’s report, the other employees fired over wait times include a program support clerk, a medical support assistant, a nurse, a medical service chief, and, as we mentioned, an advanced medical support assistant still under probation. Those individuals’ names and facilities were redacted from the report to protect their privacy, according to a spokesman for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

In total, as of Sept. 22, there were proposed disciplinary actions against 57 employees in cases involving patient wait times. Of those employees, only nine, including one still under probation, were fired. And other than Helman, the former Phoenix VA Health Care System director whose firing was actually upheld because of undisclosed gifts, only three senior officials were removed.

So the VA apparently hasn’t “fired a whole bunch of people who were in charge of some of these facilities” where patient wait times were an issue, as Obama’s statement suggested.