The VA and its problem with background checks

Jonathan Kaupanger
March 27, 2018 - 2:33 pm

Photo by PA Images/Sipa USA

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Six percent of Veterans Health Administration workers – the people on the front line of veteran care – have yet to have a background check initiated.

A registered nurse worked 1,452 days (that’s almost four years) at the Dayton VAMC without a background check. At the Charlie Norwood VAMC in Georgia, another registered nurse worked 774 days without the required check. This is a problem because employees are working with veterans before they have been properly vetted. And in cases like the Dayton nurse, by the time the investigation was started, the nurse was already past the probationary period.

To work for the government, you need a background check. The level of the investigation depends on the responsibilities of the position. Anyone who gets selected for a Civil Service job has to go through a prescreening, it’s a limited investigation that is mainly law enforcement checks. Once the person starts, the facility is required to do a more appropriate check determined by the risk level of the position. 

For the case of medical professionals, it’s more complicated. In many states, doctors and nurses have to pass background checks to obtain licenses. These checks verify education and in many cases, eliminate a lot of liability issues by making sure VA medical professionals hold valid licenses and are considered in good standing with medical licensing boards.

Last year, USA Today uncovered exactly why this can be a problem, when it was discovered that the VA hired a neurosurgeon who had 15 malpractice complaints against him and his license had been revoked after a patient’s death. The VA also hired a psychiatrist who was sanctioned for sexual misconduct and sleeping with a patient.

The lack of background checks isn’t the only problem. Once the initial investigation happens, a suitability adjudicator has 90 days to review the investigation and make a determination based on both favorable and unfavorable information about the person’s character and conduct. The OIG inspection found several VA facilities where the investigation happened, but the decision on whether the employee was suitable or not, just didn’t happen.

Roughly 13 percent of all VHA background checks didn’t have timely adjudication. In one case, at the Long Beach Healthcare System, it took 2,312 days to complete a hire. That’s over six years, twice the probationary period. 

The problems didn’t stop here. Even after the background checks and adjudication, a massive 42 percent of VHA employees did not have a certificate if investigation – the form that proves everything was done properly – in their personnel file. 

In response to the report, VA is creating a centralized adjudication and background investigation system that will be operational either later this year or early 2019. Until then, the Personnel Security & Credential Management office will review employee background data.