House Speaker John Boehner said top officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs should be fired for failing to do their jobs, but stopped short of calling for the ouster of Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki during a news conference Thursday.
When asked directly whether Shinseki needs to be replaced, the Ohio Republican said:
“No. I think the secretary needs to have more authority to manage his own department.”
That authority would come through a House bill giving the veterans secretary the power to fire or demote those in the Senior Executive Service, the top tier of agency management in the federal system.
Veterans are needlessly dying in VA hospitals and waiting years to resolve disability compensation claims. Yet the top officials responsible for delivering quality care and service are more likely to get a bonus than a pink slip, Boehner said.
He cited the nearly $12,000 bonus paid to Guy Richardson, who was director of the Dayton, Ohio, VA Medical Center, where unsanitary practices in the dental clinic potentially exposed hundreds of patients to hepatitis.
“I thought I’d seen the worst of government, but this goes beyond the pale,” Boehner said. “If you preside over a bureaucracy that is failing our veterans, you shouldn’t be receiving bonuses. You should be gone.”
Shinseki told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs last month he has the authority he needs to hold his people accountable for their failures. Last year 3,000 employees were forced out of their jobs agency-wide because of performance issues, he said.
Six SES-level executives have been “dismissed” over the past two years, Shinseki said.
VA documents show that of the six, two were demoted into the general schedule system and remain with the agency.
In addition, eight senior executives either resigned or retired while under investigation or facing disciplinary review over the last two years, according to the VA document.
Rubio also did not call for Shinseki's removal, but like Boehner he said the problems at VA are so bad that employees who have consistent records of failure need to be held accountable.
“I’m not calling for his resignation,” Rubio said. “I’m calling for more tools to be available to senior leadership so that they can discipline or demote those who aren’t doing their jobs.”
A statement issued by VA after the press conference indicates the agency opposes the bill, saying it could hurt in recruiting and retaining top managers.
“Changes that would single out VA employees for punishment by removing existing federal civil service rules not only put VA at a competitive disadvantage, but can ultimately harm VA’s ability to best serve veterans,” the statement says.
For more than a year, Shinseki has been under intense pressure from Congress, veterans' groups and the public to end the longstanding backlog of disability compensation claims tied to military service. He vowed shortly after taking office that all initial claims would be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015.
The backlog got worse after he made the promise. It peaked a year ago, when more than 632,000 cases were more than 125 days old, more than 70 percent of all claims. VA officials responded with initiatives targeting the oldest claims and forcing processors to work overtime. The backlog now stands at almost 56 percent, with more than 343,000 cases older than 125 days.
More recently, a string of VA inspector general's and media reports have exposed a string of preventable patient deaths at veterans' hospitals nationwide. More than 30 preventable deaths have been reported at facilities in Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The Center for Investigative Reporting said in a story published Thursday that VA paid out more than $200 million in wrongful death payments in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Payments were made to more than 1,000 families because of inadequate care that includes botched surgeries, neglect of elderly patients or failure to properly handle mental health issues, according to CIR.
Despite Shinseki's claim that his employees are held accountable for failure, discipline often amounts to a minor reprimand or transfer to another facility, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans committee and the prime sponsor of the reform bill, which has 57 co-sponsors.
“That’s not accountability,” said Miller, who also did not call for Shinseki’s resignation. “When somebody dies on your watch and it was preventable and there was an error involved, you should be fired and fired quickly. Unfortunately the department does not choose to do that.”