WASHINGTON—Some 4,300 Veterans Affairs (VA) workers have been demoted, fired, or suspended since President Donald Trump took office, Vice President Mike Pence told a room of veterans caregivers on Nov. 26.
Pence said that proves the president has “taken decisive action to restore accountability to the VA,” a statement that drew loud applause and cheers from the audience.
Data from the VA shows that some 2,058 employees were removed, demoted, or suspended in 2017, the majority of whom—1,484—were removed. In 2018, through the end of August, some 2,299 were removed, demoted or suspended, of which the majority—2,148—were removed.
The suspensions lasted 14 days or more; some of the removals in 2018 were done during a probationary period.
The numbers aren’t limited to the VA’s health care operations, though. They include agencies such as the National Cemetery Administration, the Office of Information and Technology, and the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP).
This year, the OAWP was involved in the removal of three senior leaders: two in the Veterans Health Administration and one in the Veterans Benefits Administration. Another two in the Veterans Health Administration, one a senior leader and the other a health-system specialist, were suspended.
The Veterans Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, signed by the president last June, created the OAWP to change the culture of bureaucracy that spawned stories of veterans dying while waiting to get treatment at VA facilities. Trump created the office by executive order last April, but it took the act to make it a permanent part of the VA.
As the title suggests, it also offers protection to whistleblowers, as a way to encourage the reporting of negligence. When Trump signed the act, he called it “one of the largest reforms to the VA in its history.”
“Outdated laws kept the government from holding those who failed our veterans accountable. Today, we are finally changing those laws,” he said. “VA accountability is essential to making sure that our veterans are treated with the respect they have so richly earned.”
The issue ignited in 2014 when Army veteran Barry Coates told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that the “gross negligence” and “crippling backlog” at the VA handed him a “death sentence” and “ruined the quality” of his life. He died in January 2016 of cancer that went undetected by VA doctors for almost a year.
He became the face of what would become a larger scandal, when the same year, some 18 vets who were put on a secret waitlist at a Phoenix VA died while waiting for appointments. That’s in addition to another 17 cases that were under investigation at the same hospital.
Robert Grier, who is a caregiver for his veteran father, has experienced the sluggishness of the VA firsthand.
“You have to be patient,” he said of his experience at the H.J. Heinz campus of the Pittsburgh VA. “It’s so busy, you wait in line for the parking garage for an hour.”
He doesn’t blame the system, though. He says all humans are flawed, and the systems that humans create are likely to be flawed as well. The doctors he sees are under enormous pressure from overwhelming caseloads, but he says that when he does get his father to treatment, “they do a great job.”
Grier has also experienced the effect of another Trump-signed bill, called the VA Mission Act. That’s aimed at cutting wait times for veterans to be able to get care outside the region where they live. Once, while on vacation in Florida, his dad had a medical episode that required him to get care immediately. Grier called the VA and was told there wasn’t a VA facility nearby, but that he could go to a local hospital and his father’s care would be covered.
“They assessed him, they gave him treatment—it took a couple of hours until we were finished—and it was fantastic,” he said.