- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A “substantial” number of VA employees will face punishment for the veterans treatment scandal, the new national commander of the American Legion predicted Tuesday, indicating that the slow pace of discipline has more to do with the hoops the department must jump through than it does a lack of willingness to fire people.

Michael Helm, who took over as national commander at the end of August, has previously been critical of the VA for not holding employees accountable for cooking the books and letting veterans wait too long for an appointment. After meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Monday, however, Mr. Helm said he is “confident” officials are taking the right steps forward to discipline, fire or retrain employees who put protecting the agency ahead of the needs of veterans.

“Once I talked to the secretary yesterday, a lot of those concerns are gone now, and I’m hopeful that it’s going to happen, and there’s going to be a lot of people held accountable,” he said. “It’s not one or two or three or even a dozen people being looked at. There’s a lot of people who are facing some action of some kind.”

While he’s happy that the secretary has increased accountability, Mr. Helm acknowledged that much of the work now is happening behind closed doors, and it may be a while before a personnel action is made public.

“Certainly there’s going to be a long period of time due to legal things that have to happen before it actually takes place. But I’m confident now that the secretary is moving in the right direction with accountability,” he said.

Mr. McDonald announced in early September that three senior executive service employees in Phoenix face proposed disciplinary action, and a few others across the country retired or were placed on administrative leave.

“We are as impatient as you are, and we have 100 investigations ongoing. While those investigations are going on, we’re not allowed to take definitive action, but we’re doing all we can,” he told reporters.

Many have said that’s not enough to address the systemic problems of poor-quality care and long wait times found throughout the health care system earlier this year, including Mr. Helm, who wrote a letter to the president in September following the release of an inspector general report that found widespread problems with care at the Phoenix facility, but could not conclusively link those problems and delays to veterans’ deaths.

“Mr. President, I understand that you cannot be held responsible for every act of malfeasance that occurs in the federal government,” Mr. Helm wrote in the letter to President Obama. “But let me assure you that if someone on my staff were found to be cooking the books, committing fraud or putting career ambitions ahead of veterans’ lives, they wouldn’t be transferred or suspended with pay. They would be fired immediately.”

While Mr. Helm said he has yet to talk with the president about the letter, Mr. McDonald called him after it was sent to talk about the Legion’s concerns and the administration’s efforts to address them.

“My letter came out of frustration that I didn’t see things being done,” Mr. Helm said. “I didn’t feel and the people I had seen along my visits were concerned [that] maybe there wasn’t a real effort [at] accountability happening.”

Now, however, Mr. Helm feels sure that those who didn’t provide the highest-quality care will face punishment.

“There was a part of the VA [where], to me, it seemed was mainly concerned with the VA and not about health care. So they were protecting the VA itself rather than giving service to the veterans,” he said. “Those people are going to be dealt with, and that list is substantial.”

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