Deputy secretary Jim Byrne out at VA

The number two official at the Department of Veterans Affairs was fired Feb. 3 by Secretary Robert Wilkie as the agency faces down a key milestone in a $16 billion tech project.

James Byrne presides at a ribbon coutting of the Federal Health Care Center March 2019  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jacob Waldrop/Released)
 

James Byrne at a ribbon cutting ceremony for a Federal Health Care Center in March 2019. (Photo credit: Jacob Waldrop/U.S. Navy)


The number two official at the Department of Veterans Affairs was fired Feb. 3 by Secretary Robert Wilkie.

"Today, I dismissed VA Deputy Secretary James Byrne due to loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne’s ability to carry out his duties. This decision is effective immediately," Wilkie stated in a terse mid-day press release.

Byrne was confirmed by the Senate last September by a vote of 81-11. He joined VA as general counsel in August 2017 and was elevated to acting deputy secretary in August 2018. Before joining the department, Byrne was associated general council and chief privacy officer at Lockheed Martin. Byrne also served as a Marine infantry officer and as a narcotics prosecutor at the Justice Department.

Byrne's dismissal comes as VA fields criticism over the handling of a sexual harassment charge brought by a congressional staffer and Navy veteran who reported an attack at a VA facility. VA referred the matter to the Office of Inspector General. Subsequently no charges were brought and Wilkie, in a Jan. 15 letter to House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.), complained that "unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve."

While the two matters have not been explicitly linked, the staffer, Andrea N. Goldstein, recounted her experience in an essay published on the blog Jezebel  the morning of the day Byrne was dismissed.

In a Feb. 3 statement, Takano indicated he'd spoken to Wilkie before Byrne's firing was made public but said, "I have many questions about what Deputy Secretary Byrne's firing means for our veterans and VA as a whole."

Takano added: "As Chairman of this Committee, it is my duty to ensure veterans receive timely access to care and benefits without delay, and I want to make sure this personnel decision will not impact that commitment. Secretary Wilkie has agreed to meet with me to discuss this leadership change in detail, and I look forward to speaking with him."

As deputy secretary, Byrne was the senior responsible official for the Electronic Health Record Modernization project – a $16 billion effort to move VA's sprawling hospital system off of its homegrown Vista electronic health record software system to a commercial system based on the Cerner Millennium product.

That effort is nearing a key milestone – the March, 28 go-live date in Spokane, Wash.

VA did not respond to questions about which official is currently responsible for the EHRM program at VA. Jim Windom leads the project as executive director, reporting to the deputy secretary. There is also a recently established joint VA-Defense Department board called the Federal Electronic Health Records Modernization Office that is supposed to offer guidance and oversight to both agencies as they implement commercial health record software. That board is led on an interim basis by VA's Dr. Neil Evans.

"There is no question that this is a critical time for VA and that Secretary Wilkie must have a leadership team that he can trust supporting him as he works to transform VA and better serve veterans and their families," Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) the ranking member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in an emailed statement. "He has my full support on both fronts."

Byrne is not the first VA deputy secretary to be terminated during the Trump administration. Thomas Bowman was fired after the ouster of former Secretary David Shulkin -- and was also prevented from taking on the duties of secretary on a temporary basis when then-chief of staff Peter O'Rourke was elevated temporarily to the top job.

Multiple VA insiders contacted by FCW described feuding and factionalism among senior managers at the agency, but none said they had expected Byrne's dismissal.

This article was updated with additional information and comment on Feb. 3.

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