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The Cincinnati VA Medical Center.
The Cincinnati VA Medical Center. (VA)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs took action Thursday against two more top executives, raising the specter of yet another showdown with the federal appeals board that has been overturning VA disciplinary measures.

The actions against two executives in the Cincinnati region came in the wake of a federal probe into professional misconduct at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center conducted Feb. 9-11.

Following that preliminary probe, conducted jointly by the VA Office of Medical Inspector and the Office of Accountability Review, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson had proposed removing from federal service Jack Hetrick, the director of Cincinnati network, known as Veterans Integrated Service Network or VISN 10, a VA statement said.

Hetrick submitted his retirement and, on Thursday, he received a notice of pending removal, according to the VA statement. It was unclear Thursday whether he will appeal his punishment.

In related action, VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin moved the acting chief of staff of the Cincinnati VA Medical Center as a result of the preliminary findings. Dr. Barbara Temeck was assigned to “non-patient-care duties” while Shulkin considers “appropriate additional actions,” according to the statement.

The disciplinary actions against top executives come amidst an expanding tug of war between the VA and the federal appeals board that now has the ultimate say on disciplinary actions against senior VA executives.

Since the start of the year, the Merit Systems Protection Board has reversed three attempts by the VA to remove top executives who’d been accused of wrongdoing.

Earlier this month, the board overturned Gibson’s decision to fire Linda Weiss, director of the Albany-Stratton VA Medical Center in New York, for failing to properly handle staff misconduct, including theft of drugs.

Similarly, executives Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, were reinstated into their positions when merit board judges overturned their removals. Auditors had found both women were involved in schemes to move to jobs with fewer responsibilities but at the same salaries and with hefty relocation payments. Gibson had demoted them saying their actions looked bad and demonstrated poor judgment.

Gibson stated he will punish the women to a lesser degree, but that could take months and might not be upheld by the merit board.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald this week elaborated to senators on a proposal for the VA to take sole control over the firings of executives and to ditch the federal merit board process. McDonald said in a presentation before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the move, which would change the statute under which VA executives are hired, could help the VA become more competitive by allowing for quicker hires of medical professionals at higher salaries.

The Cincinnati executives were removed after investigators found misconduct by Hetrick and Temeck “related to Temeck’s provision of prescriptions and other medical care to members of Hetrick’s family,” according to the VA statement. It said the VA Office of Inspector General has accepted a referral of the allegations of potential criminal investigation.

Gibson vowed to continue to discipline executives, despite the conflict, saying the VA is committed to holding its directors accountable.

“We will continue to use the VA’s statutory authority to hold employees accountable where warranted by the evidence,” Gibson said in a statement.

But the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs said the VA’s actions only underscore a lack of accountability at the agency. A committee spokesman said Hetrick upended Gibson’s notice of pending removal by retiring and both executives will still enjoy substantial benefits.

“The latest installment in this depressing saga is VA’s announcement today that VISN 10 Director Jack Hetrick will retire – likely with full benefits and a lifetime pension – and that Cincinnati VAMC Acting Chief of Staff Barbara Temeck will remain on the department’s payroll making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for the foreseeable future,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said. “A VA investigation has already substantiated that both employees committed serious misconduct in violation of multiple VA regulations and quite possibly the law, yet both of these individuals are still collecting taxpayer-funded paychecks.”

cahn.dianna@stripes.com Twitter: @DiannaCahn

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