President Barack Obama brought in Robert McDonald to head the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs last year after discovery of fraudulent records, a pattern of reprisals against whistleblowers and a deadly failure to treat eligible veterans in a timely fashion by the agency’s health administration.
Now Secretary McDonald, a West Point graduate who served in the military and corporate-executive realms, has evidently fallen into the familiar trap of exaggerating his accomplishments and blaming Congress for his problems. Doing so reduces the nation’s confidence in his ability to manage his troubled agency.
Earlier this year, Mr. McDonald told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “Nine hundred employees have been fired since I became secretary,” implying that they were “accountable” for lapses in the VA system. Included among them, he said, were “60 people who manipulated wait times” to falsely claim veterans were not being denied timely appointments. He added that “about 100 senior leaders ... are also under investigation.”
But VA documents provided to Congress and recently reported by The New York Times appear to refute these claims. They show that the department punished only eight of its 280,000 employees for involvement in the scandal. The Times reported that one was fired, one was forced to retire, one is about to be fired and five were reprimanded or suspended for up to two months.
So much for a clean sweep.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., noticed — and exposed — the self-serving discrepancies in the secretary’s version of events. In a letter to Mr. McDonald late last week, Rep. Miller pointed out that “your own misstatements to the media” prompted his committee’s decision to release data setting the record straight.
Yet the secretary seems determined to play the victim. In a recent appearance before the Association of Health Care Journalists, he blamed the VA’s problems on a tight budget and a rising work load, presumably caused by an aging veteran population.
He also complained about a House-proposed cut in next year’s budget of $1.4 billion — or less than 1 percent. Never mind that the VA’s budget has increased by roughly two-thirds during the Obama presidency to $164 billion this year.
The Veterans Affairs secretary also said Congress was not providing enough funds for the agency’s construction program at a time when he is being asked to explain huge overruns on construction projects, including a new hospital in Denver that has so far cost $1.7 billion.
In a testy exchange with Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., Mr. McDonald rejected responsibility for the overruns, saying, “If there’s a problem in Denver, I think you [Congress] own it more than I do.”
However, the VA, not Congress, manages the construction program.
Meanwhile, evidence is accumulating that whistleblowers in the department are still being subjected to retaliation. Whatever steps Mr. McDonald has taken to discipline abuses of power have clearly not been sufficient to bring senior VA health officials in line.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has said the VA is suffering from “an epidemic” of retaliation against whistleblowers and has written McDonald to ask what steps, if any, are being taken to put an end to the practice.
Courageous whistleblowers at several VA hospitals last year provided the first evidence of fraudulent records and denial of service at the VA.
By inflating his achievements while failing to stop abusive staff practices and by passing the buck, Mr. McDonald raises serious questions about his fitness for the job.
If he can’t do better, the administration should start looking for leadership that can.