MEMPHIS, Tennessee — The Veterans Affairs Department is in the process of holding bad employees accountable amid a scandal about long wait times for patients and other problems, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said Thursday, but he declined to say how many people were being fired and who they were.
McDonald visited with veterans and employees at the Memphis VA hospital on Thursday, a day after addressing the American Veterans national convention.
McDonald said employees who are being fired are allowed due process, but the agency is working as quickly as it can as it goes through the process under a new law that addresses the VA's firing practices.
"You've got to treat that person with respect," he told reporters at the hospital. "They have to be allowed a certain due process that's allowed them by law or by statute or by policy. And, so, we can't talk to you about names, we can't talk to you about individuals, even though that's what you would like. We can't do that because that would be disrespectful.
"On the other hand, we've got to deal with it as quickly as we can," he added. "We've got to deal with it deliberately and we've got to deal with it appropriately. I can tell you, we are going to hold people accountable, and we're going to do that as quickly as we possibly can."
When asked how many people have been fired, he said: "That's not relevant. I mean, what's relevant is what's happened here in Memphis."
A $16.3 billion VA overhaul law signed by President Barack Obama last week grants the VA secretary authority to immediately fire poor-performing senior executives, while providing employees with streamlined appeals rights. Fired employees would have seven days to appeal, with a decision by an administrative judge due in 21 days. The law was adopted after members of Congress from both parties complained that it has taken months to fire VA employees.
In late July, the VA said it wanted to fire two supervisors accused of manipulating health care data in Colorado and Wyoming. Four other employees face suspension, demotion or admonishment. The disclosures came before the new law was signed.
McDonald also said he met with veterans who like the care they have received at the Memphis VA and employees who are passionate about their jobs. But he also heard complaints from veterans who have been critical of the care they have received.
"I talked with several veterans who had bad things to say," McDonald said. "I have met with whistleblowers while I'm here. I've met with veterans who are unhappy with their care. Generally, the most unhappy people are those who haven't gotten access to care, and we're trying to get that fixed."
He said he's heard about a culture that's punished people for bringing problems to light and have cited acrimony between staff and managers.
"We've got to stop fighting amongst ourselves and start working together as a team," he said.
McDonald also cited changes made to the hospital's emergency room after last October's inspector general's report that said three patients died after receiving substandard care.
The report said one patient was given a medication despite a documented drug allergy and had a fatal reaction. Another patient was found unresponsive after receiving multiple sedating medications. A third had critically high blood pressure that was not aggressively monitored and experienced bleeding in the brain about five hours after going to the emergency room.
"Fortunately, we're not seeing that in every VA facility," he said.
The hospital has said the problems that led to the deaths have been fixed. McDonald said a new emergency department chief and a new nurse manager were on the job, and 14 additional nurses with emergency experience were hired. More room was being added in the emergency department as part of a $5 million renovation, he said.
Another $3.8 million from within the VA's budget is being made available to the Memphis VA to accelerate access to care. And, the Memphis VA has expanded hours and increased the use of overtime, he said.
The Memphis VA serves 67,000 veterans in four states. An audit released in June showed that while more than 97 percent of 48,998 appointments at the hospital were scheduled within 30 days, 1,697 veterans were made to wait more than 30 days for appointments.
Another 507 veterans had to wait 61 days to 90 days for an appointment, the audit showed. New patients waited an average of nearly 50 days to see a primary-care doctor.