Robert MacDonald was sworn into office as the 8th Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs just over a week ago, and already he has announced changes that will hopefully bring the flailing, failing agency in line with its mission:
“To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.”
Of late, the administration has failed miserably, with a scandal that we previously reported on, resulting in the resignation of General Eric Shinseki, and an outcry over treatment delays, falsified records and whistleblower retaliation.
The administration was shaken last year by whistleblower reports that delayed treatment may have resulted in the deaths of veterans who simply couldn’t get through the red tape and waiting lines in time to receive the treatment that could have saved their lives.
The problems began when the federal government issued a mandate that VA hospitals nationwide initiate systems to reduce the wait times that veterans were then experiencing. Rather than rise to the challenge by streamlining systems, hiring more staff or addressing waste (like the San Antonio VA Hospital, which is being touted by the Administration as “excelling”), many hospitals chose to implement systems of fraudulent record keeping in order to meet the quotas.
Veterans calling for appointments were put on secret waiting lists until a few weeks before their appointments in order to make it appear as those they were being seen within the 3 week guidelines. One whistleblower in Phoenix reported that when she finally called the veteran back to tell him about his appointment, that his family informed her he wouldn’t need an appointment anymore, as he had already passed away.
As the crack began to appear in the system, hospital staff members, doctors, nurses and other personnel began coming forward with reports of the abuses. In many cases, rather than address concerns, hospital management chose to retaliate against the employees making the reports. Reassignment, termination, forced resignation, harassment and threats became common.
The Project for Government Oversight reports that there were more than 800 reports of possible wrongdoing by current and former VA workers and veterans, but that many employees were afraid to come forward because of the fear of retaliation.
Whistleblower attorneys began getting cases and filing them in court, finally bringing the unlawful and fraudulent behavior of hospital administrators to light. After years of abuse and retaliation, cases finally began seeing resolution, which lead to the resignation of the former Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs.
Sloan Gibson was appointed Deputy Secretary and the Interim Secretary while the Obama Administration scrambled to find someone qualified to take over the position and to address the years of abuse.
Gibson initiated investigations into the wrongdoing almost immediately. Those investigations were followed up by current Secretary Robert MacDonald, who began speaking to veteran’s groups almost immediately.
He addressed the groups saying that this was an opportunity that “we can’t miss or underestimate…and opportunity for me to make a difference in the lives of veterans I care so much about…” Macdonald is a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, so he speaks from experience and a shared empathy for those veterans that have been affected by this scandal.
He had praise for the Obama Administration for apportioning $16.3 billion to overhaul the VA. That $16 billion allows for $10 billion to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get prompt appointments and $5 billion to hire more doctors and other medical and mental health professionals.
In addition, MacDonald has made it quite clear that retaliation against whistleblowers will not be tolerated.
“We didn’t hold managers accountable for retaliation against whistleblowers,” he said. Which is true, as the accountability was left to the experienced whistleblower lawyers who represented employees of the Administration around the nation.
The plan for the new VA is for realistic funding levels, greater commitment to transparency, focusing incentives on patient outcomes and satisfaction, improving technology and systems, and commissioning an independent audit of VA scheduling practices.
“Veterans are waiting too long for care,” Mr. McDonald said. “Our scheduling system is antiquated and cumbersome.”
Mr. McDonald said that he aimed to make the agency more customer-focused and that its success would be measured “against a single metric, and that single metric is customer outcomes, veteran outcomes, what’s good for the veterans.”
“We serve veterans,” he added. “If we fail at serving veterans, we fail. We have a lot of work to do.”
Mr. MacDonald issued his statements after visiting the VA Hospital in Phoenix, where he said that he met employees who were dedicated to serving veterans and were working hard to fix a broken system. If you’ll recall, we reported on whistleblower activity at the Phoenix area hospital months ago, which lead to investigations finally uncovering the truth behind the scandals.
As reported in the New York Times, Mr. McDonald said the agency was already “making good progress” in getting veterans off waiting lists, fixing scheduling problems, increasing clinic hours and recruiting new doctors. The updating of the agency’s antiquated appointment scheduling system, eventually “leading to acquisition of a comprehensive, state-of-the-art system,” will also help, he said.
But he added, “The fastest, most up-to-date technology and systems are no substitute for looking at ourselves through the eyes of veterans.”
While he plans to travel throughout the country, visiting VA Hospitals and meeting with employees and veterans we will have to wait and see how reports of wrongdoing are handled in the future. Speeches and sound bytes mean very little when civic minded, hard working, dedicated employees are punished for telling the truth about agency misdeed.
If you have information that your employer is engaged in some sort of illegal or fraudulent behavior, contact the law offices of Stephen Danz & Associates at (877) 789-9707 or use the Contact Form on our website to schedule a free consultation today. Stephen has represented employees in whistleblower cases around the globe, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in recoveries through trials and settlements. He has more than 30 years as an experienced ’employee-only’ employment lawyer, handling discrimination, retaliation, sexual harassment, whistleblowing, wage and hour violations, meal break violations and wrongful termination cases. He is the premiere employment attorney in California.
With offices all over the state, he will meet with you at a location that is convenient to your work, school or home and will sit down with you and one of his senior associates to discuss the fact of your particular case. He will outline any possible causes of action and will map out the road which your case will take should you desire to proceed.
We look forward to defending your rights.