After the scandal that broke last year at the Department of Veterans Affairs, it didn’t look possible to reduce the department’s credibility. But Secretary Robert A. McDonald has found ways to do so.

The department was embarrassed by the disclosure of long delays for veterans in need of medical care, some of whom died while they were waiting. It turned out that 10 percent of the patients the department is supposed to take care of had to wait at least 30 days to get an appointment, with thousands waiting three months or longer.

Not only that, but employees falsified records to keep the delays secret. At the Phoenix facility, the official wait time was 24 days — but the average actual wait was 115. The problem was not isolated: It affected dozens of hospitals and clinics.

Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to step down, and a review commissioned by President Barack Obama found the VA medical branch plagued by “significant and chronic system failures.”

The delays and lies were especially disgraceful in a department charged with caring for those who have served their country, including many wounded in combat. The medical system is the country’s biggest, with more than 1,700 sites for some 8.8 million veterans. When it fails, a lot of people suffer.

McDonald, Obama’s choice to clean up after the scandal, was supposed to hold people accountable. In February, he said that he had done exactly that. “We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times,” he said in a televised interview.

But the practice of fudging numbers didn’t stop when he arrived. Politifact reported that the number of employees who “were either removed, received probationary termination or resigned in lieu of removal” was not 60. It was 14.

Even that number, it turns out, gave the department way too much credit. After being granted access to documents by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, The New York Times reported that “the real number of people removed from their jobs is much smaller still: at most, three.” Out of 280,000 people in the department, a measly eight got any sort of punishment for practices that caused suffering and possibly deaths.

Lopping off heads indiscriminately is rarely a good way to correct errors. But the first problem here is not whether McDonald punished the right people. It’s the huge discrepancy between his words and his deeds. (And that’s leaving aside the instance when he said he served in an elite special forces unit — a bogus claim he had to quickly retract.)

With regard to the health care frauds, though, it’s hard to imagine that only three employees deserved the ax. Granted, some of those working for the VA may have been asked to do too much with too little in a time of rising caseloads, which would make it hard to provide timely care to all the patients who need it. But even if some delays may have been understandable, lying about them was not.

The conclusion to be drawn from what’s known right now is that it is very hard to get fired for poor or even dishonest performance in this department, which has some of the most important functions in the federal government.

That’s reason for Congress to take a serious look at legislation proposed by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., to shorten and simplify the process of firing workers who deserve it. “The government firing system is so cumbersome bad employees can continue to be paid for years,” Raymond Kelley, legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told The Times. Yet McDonald has said he has sufficient power to get rid of lousy workers.

After the latest embarrassing revelation, the department issued a statement declaring, “VA is committed to holding employees accountable for misconduct.” If it didn’t say so, you’d never guess.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: