The Unchanging Incentives of Bureaucrats


Tuesday April 28th, 2015   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 7:59am PDT   •  

VA It has been nearly a year since we first weighed in on the Veterans Affairs (VA) scandal. In that post, we discussed how incentives for bonuses led federal employees and managers to implement a bizarre rationing scheme that effectively denied timely medical treatment to former American military personnel by shunting them onto secret waiting lists while maintaining official records that falsely indicated they were hitting their targets for providing timely medical care.

On March 13, 2015, just under a year after the scandal first erupted, President Obama visited the Phoenix branch of the Veterans Administration’s national network of hospitals, the location where whistleblowers first revealed what turned out to be the widespread use of such secret waiting lists. The president pledged “to restore the trust and confidence” of the nation’s veterans who depend upon the VA for their medical care:

“We all know that there have been significant problems at this facility,” Obama said. “The kind of cooking the books and unwillingness to face up to the fact that veterans were not being adequately served went on too long.”

Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald spoke with veterans, hospital employees and members of Congress during the president’s first visit to the facility where long wait times for veterans seeking care and falsified records were first discovered. It spurred an internal VA investigation that found medical facilities throughout the country were falsifying records to create the appearance that veterans were receiving treatment in a timely manner.

Those long wait times contributed to patient deaths, officials said.

Here is what has been revealed about the VA’s Phoenix branch since President Obama pledged to restore veterans’ confidence and trust in the agency:

  1. The Phoenix VA prioritized the spending of $5,000 to clean the floors of its facility for President Obama’s special visit on March 13, 2015.
  2. On the same day as the president’s visit to the Phoenix VA’s facilities, the agency was ordered to repay the bonus that disgraced Phoenix VA director Sharon Helman received for falsely reporting that veterans at her facility were receiving timely medical care.
  3. Claims that VA Secretary Robert McDonald made about having fired 900 agency employees, including 60 directly related to the wait-list rationing scheme, have turned out to be almost completely false. The New York Times has just reported that only three VA employees have been involuntarily dismissed from their jobs, none related to the wait-list scandal.
  4. Meanwhile, retaliation against whistleblowers at the Phoenix VA has continued, including episodes where agency officials have even accessed the medical records of whistleblowers for the purpose of using them to discredit their allegations of ongoing misconduct along with other forms of harassment.

Given the lack of meaningful consequences for those involved in promoting the secret wait-list medical care rationing scheme and other misconduct, it would seem very unlikely that the more than 300,000 employees of the VA and their managers have really gotten the message that their professional conduct was and continues to be inappropriate.

The problem is a lack of accountability: promises of reform are not being kept by the VA’s directors and managers, making the pledges themselves just hollow lies. Responsibility for fixing that problem belongs to the very highest level of the U.S. government, where unfortunately, it seems that the pervasive corruption that defines the status quo of the VA’s bureaucracy is tolerated.




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