VA’s new list: Playboy without the centerfold

VA fired, demoted or gave long suspensions to 749 people since Jan. 20. But it doesn't say what they did.

The first time my mother felt I was old enough to drop off at the barbershop while she went to the grocery store, I naturally picked up one of the Playboy magazines off the table. Alas — this was a small town and a dry one — I was disappointed to discover the good stuff in the middle had been removed. Rats.

That’s a little how I felt looking at the Veterans Affairs Department’s compilation of adverse employee actions since Jan. 20.

Secretary David Shulkin, a physician, has thrown himself into the management reform effort at VA. I think he relishes it. The latest gambit is posting to VA’s website a list of adverse employee actions, to be updated weekly. The initial list has 26 pages each with 29 demotions, suspensions of more than 14 days, and removals. I guess “removal” means firing. That’s 749 — the last page is a little short. VA wants to show it’s tough on accountability and soft on transparency.

Like the redacted Playboy, the list tantalizes, but doesn’t reveal much.

But some. It lists neither names nor, disappointingly, descriptions of what the people did. The list does give the person’s title, VA agency and region, but not specific locations. And it lists the action taken against them.

We learn that violators of some work conditions run the ranks from housekeeping aids (suspension greater than 14 days), to physicians (removed), to police officer, to police chief (both removed). We see disciplinary action against people in all functions of the agency — nurses and nursing assistants, purchasing agents and logistics technicians, program support specialists and secretaries, and senior leaders.

At least one chief of surgery was excised from Region 15.

I didn’t make a scatter diagram, but the list seemed weighted towards the lower-level employees — lots of clerks, health aides, laundry workers, laborers, motor vehicle operators and food service workers. I found a mason, a plumber and a carpenter.

Plenty of mid-level people also got kicked. Many nurses and specialists in medical administration, human resources, inventory management and pharmacy.  A general attorney.

You’ll find a few in the higher ranks: supervisory biomedical engineer, several physicians, several listed as “senior leader.”

Looking at the list another way, VA separated or otherwise punished people who interact with or touch patients, money, materials and facilities.

VA employees, knowing the agency and region in which they work, can check the date of the action and probably figure out who it was and what they did. But perhaps VA leadership felt listing the specific indiscretions would come too close to privacy violation.

In not quite seven months, 749 people, or about 107 people per month, have been disciplined in one of the three ways mentioned. Out of an employee population of, let’s say 325,000, that comes to 0.23 percent.

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