When Robert McDonald took over as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in July 2014, the department was mired in a scandal over veterans’ health care, involving a whistleblower’s claims that VA employees had manipulated wait-time data. The controversy led to the ouster of McDonald’s predecessor, Eric Shinseki.
So what has McDonald done to clean up the embattled department since he arrived? He offered some details during a Feb. 15 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press.
"We're making fundamental changes in the department in terms of leadership. We have held accountable about 900 employees who are no longer with us that were with us before I became secretary," McDonald said.
Host Chuck Todd asked McDonald what he meant by "held accountable."
"Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary," he said. "We've got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times."
That seems to be a pretty big house-cleaning. Did that many people really get fired? We decided to see whether 900 people were let go and whether 60 of them were ousted directly because of the scandal.
"Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary"
James Hutton, a VA spokesman, told PolitiFact that "personnel from a wide range of locations, across the spectrum of pay grades, have been removed. Some of the reasons include poor performance, absenteeism, among several others."
Hutton provided a breakdown of the firings. There were 468 "removals" of regular employees. Most of these — 432 — were employees of the Veterans Health Administration, while 27 worked for the Veteran Benefits Administration and the rest worked in other, smaller offices.
To get to 900, McDonald is also counting 487 "probationary" terminations. When most people go to work for the federal government, they first go through a one-year probationary period — a tryout, if you like. During that probationary period, it is much easier to let go of an employee who isn’t working out. After that, the rules covering firing are tilted more favorably toward the employee.
This means that more than half of the firings under McDonald were terminations of probationary employees working at the department for less than one year. That’s important for a few reasons.
Most importantly, this means that about half of the people let go under McDonald’s watch were employees who were just starting work as the scandal had come to light, or weren’t even there when it was going on.
Also, this makes it unlikely that all 900 terminated employees "were with us before I became secretary," as McDonald put it in the interview. For that to be true, it would mean that not a single probationary hire under McDonald has been let go since he came on in July. Is it possible that Veterans Affairs, which has the second-largest federal workforce, did not fire a single probationary employee in the last seven months? We asked Veterans Affairs to elaborate but didn’t hear back on this point.
It’s also worth noting that McDonald’s predecessor, Shinseki, fired 2,247 people during fiscal year 2013, according to multiple reports, including our friends at the Washington Post Fact Checker, which awarded McDonald’s claim Four Pinocchios, their worst rating.
Meanwhile, McDonald is on pace to fire about 1,730 people during his first year, in a department with 325,000 full-time equivalent employees.
We take no position on what is the "right" number of VA employees to fire. Still, these termination statistics undercut the notion that McDonald came in and cleaned house. The 900 people let go may well have been part of the normal employee churn of a large government agency.
"We've got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times"
If the first part of the claim has problems, the second part doesn’t appear to be true in the slightest.
According to a Feb. 13, 2015, update on adverse employment actions since June 3, 2014, provided to PolitiFact by the House Veterans’ Affairs committees, 75 employees have received disciplinary, or "adverse employment action," related to patient scheduling, record manipulation, appointment delays or patient deaths.
Disciplinary action ranges from a written statement of censure, called a "reprimand" or "admonishment," to suspension or dismissal.
So far, 14 people were either removed, received probationary termination or resigned in lieu of removal. Another nine individuals have removals against them pending. The rest of the 75 individuals will have a written censure on their record (which can be removed after two or three years), were demoted, or will return to work after serving a suspension, the longest of which would be 60 days.
McDonald also removed five directors and officers through new authority vested in him by the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, a law passed in the aftermath of the scandal.
Asked to explain the discrepancy, Hutton said the department has "proposed disciplinary action related to data manipulation or patient care against more than 60 employees nationwide. This takes into account the full range of accountability actions including admonishments, demotions, reprimands, and termination."
In plain language: Sixty people weren’t fired as a result of the scandal; the secretary’s statement is incorrect.
McDonald said, "Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary. We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times." He also said that those 900 people "were with us before I became secretary."
While the data shows that 900 people have been let go under McDonald, half those dismissals were probationary employees, meaning they were just starting work as the scandal had come to light, or weren’t even there when it was going on. Looking at historical trends, the number of terminations looks pretty similar to ordinary personnel churn.
More problematic is the claim that 60 people were fired in direct connection with the wait-time scandal. As of mid February, 14 employees had been ousted in one way or another due to the scandal, with another five directors or officers removed as well. Other employees were disciplined without being terminated. Still, the number of terminated employees is well below McDonald’s stated number.
We rate the statement False.