VA chief says system improving but critics cite continued problems

Eighteen months after a scandal first surfaced at the Phoenix VA involving falsified wait times and patient deaths, the Veteran's Administration has not fired a single employee there for wait time manipulation. Department-wide, only three have been fired.

Despite those perplexing figures, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald told Fox News Wednesday the department has been improving under his one-year tenure. "Our average wait times are down to five days for specialty care, four days for primary care, and three days for mental health care, but we still have opportunities," he said.

McDonald acknowledges there are pockets of poor service, as more people are mustered out of the armed services.

His critics maintain he grossly understates the problem. "Bob McDonald says a lot of the right things but almost from day one he's been captured by the bureaucracy at the VA. He’s become an apologist for the VA," says Pete Hegseth of Concerned Vets of America.

More evidence of the department’s continued problems surfaced last week, when two senior VA executives invoked their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to testify  in a Senate hearing about their alleged profiting from the agency's generous relocation benefits program.

News also surfaced last week that the VA had halted benefits to some living vets after wrongly declaring they were dead. Adding insult to injury, the VA sent condolence letters to the vets’ families.

In addition, the VA's major facility construction program routinely comes in hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and is years behind schedule, according to sources in the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Now, bi-partisan attempts to fix the VA are being politicized - with Democratic presidential front runner Hillary Clinton accusing Republicans of wanting to privatize it. "Privatization is a betrayal, plain and simple, and I am not going to let it happen," she told a New Hampshire roundtable Tuesday.

Her accusation drew a swift rebuke from Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., who said in a written statement the remarks were, "inaccurate and offensive." Hegseth echoed  McCain's reaction. "It  is a typical straw man argument,  a boogie man scare tactic that Hillary Clinton is using," he said.

"The plan that Hillary Clinton’s camp has been pointing to is the plan that my group, my organization, Concerned Vets for America, has published and gives veterans a choice to either use the VA or go outside and seek private care."

President Obama last July threatened to veto the Veterans Affairs Accountability Act after the House passed a bill that would make it easier to fire incompetent VA workers. He said at the time the bill would create "a disparity in the treatment of one group of career civil servants.”

The president also feared the bill would “have a significant impact on VA’s ability to retain and recruit qualified professionals and may result in a loss of qualified and capable staff to other government agencies or the private sector.”

McDonald maintains the VA is slowly adopting what he calls "the best principles of the private sector," but he, the Obama Administration, and Clinton all oppose the VA adopting the toughest motivator the private sector can mete out - firing bad employees without lengthy appeals and arbitration.