WASHINGTON - The Veterans Affairs Department said it is firing four senior executives as officials move to crack down on wrongdoing following a nationwide scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking medical care, and falsified records covering up the delays.
The dismissals are the first since Congress passed a law this summer making it easier for veterans who experience delays to get care outside VA's nationwide network of hospitals and clinics. The law also made it easier for the agency to fire senior officials suspected of wrongdoing, shortening their appeals process to 28 days.
Among those being fired were a top purchasing official at the Veterans Health Administration, directors of VA hospitals in Pittsburgh and Dublin, Georgia, and a regional hospital director in central Alabama, the VA said.
"VA will actively and aggressively pursue disciplinary action against those who violate our values," Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Monday. "There should be no doubt that when we discover evidence of wrongdoing, we will hold employees accountable."
But a Republican congressman challenged the VA, saying that at least one of the employees being fired has already announced his retirement. John Goldman, director of the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, Georgia, said last month he was stepping down. Employees at the hospital have admitted to keeping false records to hide long wait times for veterans.
"Bragging about the proposed removal of someone who has already announced his retirement can only be described as disingenuous," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Miller called the VA's announcement of Goldman's dismissal a "semantic sleight of hand" that is insulting to veterans and their families hurt by the VA scandal.
Gibson and other VA leaders "must not tolerate this instance of what appears to be blatant deceit," Miller said.
A VA spokeswoman said the VA prepared papers ordering Goldman's removal independent of his retirement announcement.
Miller and other lawmakers said they hoped the VA followed the intent of Congress in firing failing executives.
"What I don't want to see happen is for (senior employees) to retire, resign or find another government job outside of VA without consequence - a pattern that has been emerging in recent weeks," Miller said.
One of the employees being fired is Susan Taylor, the deputy chief procurement officer with the VHA who oversees $15 billion a year in federal contracts. A report by the VA's Office of Inspector General found that Taylor helped steer contracts to a private company that championed so-called reverse auctions, in which sellers compete with each other to offer the lowest bids.
Taylor advocated for the company, Virginia-based FedBid, and worked to discredit a senior VA official who had declared a moratorium on reverse auctions while the government studied them, the report said. She also "misused her position and VA resources" for FedBid's private gain and interfered with the inspector general's investigation, the report said.
Taylor had been offered a job with the Energy Department, but that was rescinded after the DOE learned of the IG's report, officials said.
Terry Gerigk Wolf, director of the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System, is being fired for unspecified "conduct unbecoming a senior executive."
Wolf has been on paid leave since June after a VA review of a Legionnaire's disease outbreak between February 2011 and November 2012. At least six Pittsburgh VA patients died and 16 were sickened by the bacterial disease that was traced to water treatment problems at the Pittsburgh-area hospitals, which also prompted congressional hearings.
James Talton, director of the Central Alabama VA Healthcare System, is being fired after an investigation by the VA's Office of Accountability Review substantiated allegations of neglect of duty.
Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., called Talton's dismissal "a positive sign that the new VA leadership is committed to removing bad actors and improving the health care system."
Talton was placed on administrative leave in August after reports that hundreds of X-rays went unread, patients experienced long delays in getting appointments, patient records were manipulated and one employee took a patient to buy illegal drugs.
Neither Talton nor the other employees could be reached for comment late Monday. The employees have seven days following their dismissal to appeal, with a decision by an administrative judge due 21 days after that.