Lawmakers and congressional aides poked holes in Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald's Wednesday argument that accountability has returned to the agency because it has fired more than 3,700 people in the last two years.
The VA has been the focus of a scandal involving a systemic effort across the country to hide the long wait-times veterans faced when seeking medical care through the agency. That scandal has led to calls for officials to be fired, but just a few have been fired and many have either been given new jobs or allowed to retire.
McDonald has consistently argued in public that his agency is responsive to these calls, and reiterated that again in a Wednesday hearing at the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
"All told, we've terminated 3,755 employees in the past two years," he said at a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing.
But a GOP congressional staffer who works on veterans' issues said "less than ten" have been fired for the wait-time scandal, according to the latest figures that the VA gives to lawmakers.
The staffer also argued that McDonald's claim that 3,755 people have been fired over the last two years actually shows that the VA has slowed down its firing activity. He noted that in fiscal year 2013, the year before the former VA secretary was fired over the scandal, 2,247 people were fired in that one year alone.
That means McDonald's claim of 3,755 firings over two years puts the VA at a pace of about 1,900 firings per year.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., also pushed McDonald during the hearing about an employee with a criminal history who was allowed to resign instead of being terminated. Former physician's assistant Mark Wisner was hired despite having reported a criminal history, and later resigned after it was revealed he had committed sexual battery against at least seven patients.
"Are you telling me when someone resigns you lose your ability to fire them? Are you telling me that he beat you to the punch?" Moran asked.
McDonald responded by dodging the question of why he wasn't fired, and said that once employees have resigned for criminal wrongdoing, they are the responsibility of the courts.
"When somebody resigns they are no longer an employee, that's true in the private and the public sector. When someone resigns, they resign. Now obviously you have judicial options, which is occurring right now with this individual," said McDonald.
McDonald also said he opposes efforts to privatize the government-run health program at the VA, and described proponents of this idea as ignorant ideologues or merely motivated by their own self-interest.
"[B]eneath the banner of choice are always two things: interest and ideology. Let's face it, privatization would put more money into the pockets of people running health care corporations," said McDonald. "Then there are the ideologues who only deal with the issue in the simplest, laziest theoretical terms: government bad, private sector good. That's as far as the thinking goes."