WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has sent two senior executives implicated in the 2014 wait times scandal in Phoenix back to work and says more temporary reinstatements will likely follow, after the agency issued new guidance on the appropriateness of paid administrative leave.
Lance Robinson, who was assistant director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, and Brad Curry, the Phoenix Health Administration services chief, have new jobs at the Phoenix VA after 19 months on paid leave, according to VA officials.
Their disciplinary cases are still pending, said VA spokesman James Hutton, while the VA reviews “recently obtained evidence to determine what accountability actions may be appropriate.”
The reinstatements come as the VA faces growing scrutiny over misconduct in its leadership ranks and the discipline of those involved. Veterans’ advocates have lambasted the VA for failing to fire implicated officials and for wasting taxpayer money by leaving suspected officials on indefinite paid leave while their cases remain unresolved.
Hutton said the department published new guidance Jan. 6, stating that paid administrative leave should be used “only where absolutely necessary” – when an employee is “a direct threat to self or others, to the Department’s mission or to government property.”
“This has prompted a review of all cases in which VA employees have been sent out on administrative leave and should result in many of those employees’ return to duty, either in permanent positions of record or, where appropriate, in other roles on a temporary (detailed) basis,” he said.
Though that guidance was only issued last week, Hutton said the return of Robinson and Curry was a direct result.
The two men had been on paid suspension since May 2014, after the VA Office of Inspector General found they’d been involved in a data-manipulation scheme to cover up long waits that veterans faced for appointments. Robinson was also implicated in a different investigation for retaliating against a whistleblower.
Robinson will now be a strategic planner for the network and Curry will be a health systems specialist, said Jean Schaefer, spokeswoman for the VA Southwest Healthcare Network, VISN 18.
Last week, lawyers for Robinson challenged the VA to fire him or put him back to work, claiming the agency didn’t have enough evidence to take action against him.
His lawyers also directly contradicted Dec. 14 testimony by VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He testified that the delays in disciplinary cases at the Phoenix VA were due to a criminal probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office that was preventing them from interviewing key witnesses.
Robinson’s lawyers said that federal prosecutors had decided months ago not to pursue charges and that Robinson had been interviewed by VA investigators on more than one occasion.
When the scandal erupted in May 2014, the VA IG found that more than 1,700 patients were languishing without care because their names were left off the electronic wait list for appointments. Some died while waiting for care. The scandal led to revelations of mismanagement and misconduct nationwide. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid the crisis.
Veterans advocates denounced the VA for a lack of accountability following the return of the two Phoenix officials, calling on VA leadership, from Secretary Bob McDonald on down, to take responsibility for failing to punish executives who acted to harm rather than help veterans.
“If Secretary McDonald and the top leadership at the VA do not have the courage, or competence, to properly fire employees like Curry and Robinson who engage in misconduct that puts lives at risk, then they have no business managing an agency that millions of veterans rely on for their critical health care needs,” Concerned Veterans for America Legislative and Political Director Dan Caldwell said in a statement. “The stakes for our veterans are simply too high.”
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement that the fact that it took 19 months to conclude that Robinson and Curry needed to work for their paychecks was “simply mind-boggling.”
“Right now, VA leaders owe the public an explanation for why they wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars paying these employees to sit at home while apparently taking almost no action to investigate the allegations against them,” he said.