ACCOUNTABILITY AT THE DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
(Senate - November 16, 2016)

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[Congressional Record Volume 162, Number 164 (Wednesday, November 16, 2016)]
[Pages S6422-S6423]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]




          ACCOUNTABILITY AT THE DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

  Mr. MORAN. Mr. President, I have the honor of serving with the chair 
on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and I want to speak 
tonight about a set of issues, a circumstance that we have found 
ourselves in.
  As you will recall, several years ago there was a national news story 
and our Nation was appalled to learn that Department of Veterans 
Affairs employees from across the country were creating secret waiting 
lists that stood between veterans and the care they deserved. Veterans 
died waiting for care because of deceptive practices at the VA. In the 
wake of that wrongdoing, I called for the resignation of the then-
Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. At that time, I didn't 
think things could get worse at the Department, but I was wrong.
  In 2014, during the confirmation hearings for the current VA 
Secretary, Bob McDonald, he seemed to understand the urgency demanded 
by the American people and by their Congress to fix the problems at the 
Department of Veterans Affairs. In his testimony, he promised that 
``the seriousness of this moment demands action . . . those employees 
that have violated the trust of the Nation and of veterans must be, and 
will be, held accountable.''
  Now, more than 2 years later, with authorities granted by Congress 
and signed into law by the President, the Secretary seems to have 
forgotten that promise. Time and time again, the Secretary uses a 
talking point on accountability, stating ``the VA has terminated more 
than 4,095 employees'' since he arrived. The real number of 
terminations is three. Only three people have been discharged from the 
VA for their misconduct, and another 12 to 15 are ``potential removals 
or demotions.''
  What the Secretary hasn't said is that thousands of those 
terminations were actually employees placed on paid leave, thereby 
racking up $23 million to pay the salaries of 2,500 VA employees who 
weren't actually working. The opportunity for the Secretary and for the 
VA to hold bad actors accountable has been squandered.
  The terrible part of this is that Americans have been misled. The 
accountability the VA created in the wake of the scandal about the fake 
waiting lists has generated further disappointment and scandal due to 
the mismanagement and manipulation. Instead of firing people, Americans 
are paying bad actors to do nothing or, worse yet, they have been 
transferred to other facilities to continue bad practices. The morale 
of the vast majority--a huge number--of hard-working people who work 
for the VA, many who are veterans themselves, has to be harmed as they 
care for veterans every day and suffer in this culture of corruption.
  In Kansas, my home State, we face one of the worst examples of a VA 
employee violating the trust of a veteran. Yet the VA seems to have no 
sense of urgency in holding this person accountable or committing to 
fixing the process that enabled this individual to do what he did.
  In 2015, we learned from newspaper reports--certainly not from the 
VA--that a physician assistant at the Leavenworth VA hospital, Mr. Mark 
Wisner, had been sexually abusing veteran patients. Shortly after that 
news broke, the Leavenworth county prosecutors charged this individual 
with multiple counts of sexual assault and abuse against numerous 
veterans. We learned, as the story unfolded, that he had targeted 
vulnerable veterans suffering from PTSD. He prescribed opioids that 
inhibited their thinking, and he used his position to deepen the wounds 
of war rather than healing them.
  I will share a quote from two Army veteran brothers who were patients 
and felt they had no choice but to continue seeking the care or lose 
the health care benefits they had earned. One of them said: ``The fear 
of losing what I had earned [in benefits] versus the fear of being 
sexually assaulted again, I don't know which one was more important.'' 
Imagine the desperation of a veteran trying to answer that question.
  Again, what is so troubling about this situation is that Mr. Wisner 
should never have been hired by the VA in the first place. As we add 
injury to insult for these veteran victims, he was not fired after he 
admitted the abuse. He was allowed to retire, and his voluntary 
retirement means he receives certain benefits that he might not 
otherwise received if he had actually been fired.
  According to publicly available documents, Mr. Wisner indicated on 
his application for licensure that he had been convicted of a crime, 
and further information indicates the crime and convictions were lewd 
in nature. Yet he was hired.
  It is infuriating--it is worse than infuriating--that a person with a 
criminal record, convicted of a lewd crime, was still hired to be at 
the frontlines of veteran patient care. When the VA was asked about his 
criminal record, they indicated that background checks are contingent 
upon ``the position's risk level'' and that physician assistant 
positions were considered ``low risk'' and didn't require an exhaustive 
background check.
  In my view, a practitioner in patient care should be held to the 
highest standards of excellence and should receive an exhaustive 
background check. How can a position in patient care be considered low 
risk at the VA?
  Fortunately, as I said, I serve with the Presiding Officer on the 
Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and I had the opportunity during one of 
our committee hearings last September--just a few months ago--to 
question Secretary McDonald about the background check process and why 
Mr. Wisner was hired with a known criminal background. The Secretary's 
response was ``there was nothing in his file that suggested that there 
was a risk.'' He also suggested that I had different information than 
he did--than he, the Secretary, did--which is hard to believe because 
the documentation I was reading from, the circumstances I was 
describing, came directly from his own Office of Inspector General.
  I have also sent the Secretary a letter with more than 20 questions 
about this situation, hoping I could receive substantive answers to 
those questions. More than 2 months passed until I received a response 
last week from the Under Secretary for Health. Actually, I was hoping 
to learn something from that response about the VA's commitment to 
fixing their hiring practices, not a canned answer regarding the VA's 
current process for background checks. Certainly, the 20 questions 
asked of the Secretary remain unanswered. They remain unanswered 
regarding why the VA's credentialing process failed to catch Mr. 
Wisner--a convict. Does the VA not consider lewd crimes or convictions 
in an applicant's file as a risk to veterans? The responses have been 
unacceptable. The lack of response has been unacceptable.
  Also unacceptable are the circumstances surrounding Mr. Wisner's 
separation from the VA. Instead of an immediate termination, 
unbelievably, he was permitted to retire with full benefits. When the 
VA police received a complaint about Mr. Wisner in May of 2014, they 
alerted the VA inspector general. Wisner was removed from patient care 
and placed on paid administrative leave while the IG conducted its 
investigation. Some days later, in an interview with the VA inspector 
general's special agent, Wisner admitted he ``crossed the professional 
line'' and that he engaged in ``unnecessary and inappropriate behavior 
of a sexual nature.'' Mr. Wisner made no attempt to hide his actions, 
stating that he ``knew what he was doing to these patients was wrong 
and that he had no self-control.''
  Despite confessing to these horrible and illegal actions, Mr. Wisner 
continued to be an employee of the VA for 37 more days, giving him 
enough time to beat the VA to the punch and seeking and receiving 
retirement on June 28, 2014. One would think the moment a VA employee 
admits to violating or abusing a patient, a client, or a coworker would 
be the moment their paycheck would end and they would no longer be 
employed; that there would be zero tolerance for such egregious 
conduct.
  Grounds for immediate termination clearly existed from Wisner's own 
confessions. Yet he was able to gather all his personal documents and 
submit his

[[Page S6423]]

retirement paperwork to the VA to guarantee his retirement benefits--
benefits, incidentally, that millions of veterans continue to wait for 
years and decades to receive.
  There are so many factors about this situation that are troublesome, 
upsetting, and disgusting, but most importantly our veterans themselves 
are distraught. The VA failed to protect them from a sexual predator. 
They were taken advantage of and they are hurting. One victim took his 
own life, troubled by what happened to him.
  Wisner's termination void of retirement benefits maybe would have 
brought a small measure of justice to the victims. Despite having more 
than enough justification and the authority to fire Wisner, the VA 
chose to do nothing, and that inaction sends a very strong and 
disappointing message not only to our veterans but to the VA employees 
who are looking to the VA to have their best interest and the best 
interest of patients they care for, our veterans, at heart.
  Our veterans are expecting the VA to live up to the ``I CARE'' values 
created by the Secretary. Secretary McDonald announced the I CARE 
Program, and I can tell you that veterans in Kansas would agree that 
the VA did not demonstrate integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect or 
excellence in these circumstances.
  When given the opportunity in a hearing and in writing, the VA's top 
executives are unable to put at rest not just my mind but the minds of 
veterans back home in Kansas. Veterans deserve a heartfelt, thorough 
examination, a thorough explanation of what went wrong and what is now 
being done to make certain that it never happens again.
  Our local VA folks in our State have done what they can do to reach 
out to veteran patients. The stories continue to grow. Veterans 
continue to come forward. However, this is a serious and significant 
incident. The serious and significant incidents require more than just 
outreach. They require more than just what can happen in Kansas. They 
require an engagement by the top leadership officials at the Department 
of Veterans Affairs.
  The VA's refusal to admit fault or commit to remedying this situation 
gives little confidence to Congress and, more importantly, to veterans 
who are being asked to trust the Department that failed to protect 
them. It appears the Secretary has forgotten his promise made over 2 
years ago to uphold the ``seriousness of the moment,'' to hold those 
responsible for bad behavior accountable. There could be no more 
serious moment. There could be no more serious moment of recklessness 
by the VA than the abuse of a veteran by its own employees.
  I yield the floor.

                          ____________________