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The Department of Veterans Affairs says it has recommended disciplinary actions against six employees at VA medical facilities in Colorado and Wyoming for manipulating patient wait times, but the punishments that are being meted out –- and what the employees did to receive them –- remain unclear.
Even the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee says he would like to know more so that he can determine if the penalties fit their actions. So far, though, he hasn’t gotten any answers.
The VA, which announced the disciplinary actions against employees at medical facilities in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Fort Collins, Colorado, in a July 29 statement, said that “certain supervisors in these facilities were found to have personally manipulated data, instructed their subordinates to manipulate data, and withheld accurate information from their superiors.”
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As a result, it said it had recommended the firing of two unidentified supervisors and demoting, suspending or admonishing the others. Employees have the right to appeal the disciplines after they are finalized.
The VA’s statement did not identify the supervisors or the other four employees, and the agency argues it is prohibited from doing so by privacy laws.
It did list the titles of two senior officials who were recommended for discipline – essentially identifying Ralph Gigliotti, director of VA facilities in the Rocky Mountain region, known as VISN 19, and Cynthia McCormack, the director and chief of staff of the Cheyenne VA Medical Center in Wyoming – but it did not specify what disciplinary actions it had recommended for them or state whether they were the “supervisors” referred to elsewhere in the statement.
McCormack and another senior Cheyenne official were both shown to have known of or been involved in improper scheduling practices at the facility meant to disguise long wait times for veterans, which were documented in an exclusive CNBC report in June.
McCormack said at a news conference in May that she had misunderstood a directive on how to properly schedule appointments using the “next available” date rather than the veterans’ “desired” appointment date to calculate wait times. However, CNBC obtained a memo she had signed instructing employees on proper scheduling practices.
Asked about McCormack’s employment status this week, VA Spokeswoman Victoria Dillon told NBC News that McCormack is still an active employee at the Cheyenne VA Medical Center. She declined to say whether she retained her previous post or specify what punishment had been recommended for her, citing the Privacy Act of 1974 which she said prohibits disclosure of information related to disciplinary action taken against any named federal employee.
McCormack did not respond to requests from NBC News for comment.
Gigliotti also remains “an active employee at VISN 19,” which oversees both the Cheyenne and Fort Collins facilities, according to the VA.
A woman who answered the phone at VISN 19 offices said Gigliotti was “on leave,” but would return next week. Attempts to reach Gigliotti for comment by other means were unsuccessful.
In a statement included in the VA’s July 29 release, then acting Secretary of the VA Sloan D. Gibson, was quoted as saying, “VA must earn back the trust of veterans. Part of earning back that trust is holding people accountable when there is documented evidence of willful misconduct and management negligence.”
But Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, says it’s impossible to know if employees guilty of wrongdoing are being disciplined appropriately because the VA refuses to say what they did or how it is punishing them.
In a letter dated July 31, he asked the agency to produce a review by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General that was referenced in the VA statement as justifying the disciplinary proceedings. As of Thursday, his office said he had not yet received a response from the agency.
The retention of VA employees despite inadequate performance has long been a bone of contention with congressional committees, veterans and veterans service organizations.
A key provision of the VA reform bill signed last week by President Barack Obama gives the secretary the authority to immediately remove employees who fail to comply with VA policies or engage in wrongdoing. The signing of the bill came after the announcement of the disciplinary action and VA spokeswoman Dillon declined to say whether that policy has taken effect.
Asked if the actions against the VA employees in Colorado and Wyoming were the first recommended by VA administrators, Dillon pointed to a speech in May by former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in which he said, “I’ve initiated the process for the removal of the senior leaders at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.”
She declined to confirm whether any of the senior leaders at the Phoenix VA have been fired, or disciplined or have otherwise left VA employment, however.