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EDITORIAL: VA chief stretches truth on scandal response

For years, Department of Veterans Affairs employees across the country falsely reported patient wait times and covered up systemic malfeasance so they could collect bonuses at the expense of veterans’ health. The scandal made national news, cost VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job and laid bare the complete absence of accountability within the agency.

When Bob McDonald took over as the new VA secretary last year, he told CBS News’ Scott Pelley that 1,000 employees needed to be fired. But cleaning house is no easy task in Washington, D.C. VA employees can’t be fired until the agency builds the cases necessary to support their termination, and until their cases are reviewed by an administrative judge. Until all the reviews — and, we almost forgot, the lengthy employee appeal process — are completed, problem employees get what amounts to an extended paid vacation.

But at least Mr. McDonald was being honest about the hassle. Finally, somebody from the agency was shining a light on the situation and was going to do something about it.

Not so fast.

Fast forward to Feb. 15. Mr. McDonald appeared on “Meet the Press” and gave an update on the embattled agency. “Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary,” Mr. McDonald asserted. “We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times.”

His response was impressive. Real progress was finally being made.

Except that it wasn’t.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee of The Washington Post did some digging and discovered that Mr. McDonald was flat wrong about the firing of employees who falsely reported short wait times.

Since June 3, 2014, disciplinary actions have been proposed for 75 employees related to patient scheduling, record manipulation, appointment delays and/or patient deaths. Of those employees, only eight had actually been removed as of Feb. 13, the Post reported. Cases involving 23 were pending, and five had resigned before a decision could be made on their case. Others had been demoted, placed on probationary termination, received other disciplinary action or had no action taken against them at all. Mr. McDonald proposed the removal of five VA executives, but two retired before they could be removed. Only three were actually fired, and only one of those firings was related to the wait-time scandal.

The 900 employees Mr. McDonald said were terminated since he took over were let go for myriad reasons, including poor performance and absenteeism, and were not directly connected to those responsible for the scandal.

Mr. McDonald has not just an opportunity to clean up the agency and improve veterans’ care — and, hopefully, privatize most of its functions — he also has an opportunity, as a longtime business leader, to show just how hard it is to fire people from the nightmarish bureaucracy that American taxpayers fund.

The entire VA scandal was built on lies. Not only do Mr. McDonald’s lies further erode what little trust the public has in Washington, but they also serve as a powerful reminder of just how foreign a concept accountability is in our nation’s capital.

The only way for Mr. McDonald to change the VA — and for anyone to change the stifling nature of Washington — is to be boldly, brutally and consistently honest about its inefficiency. If Mr. McDonald won’t do it, somebody else needs to.

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