Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to fire employees for incompetence or misconduct.
The chamber passed House Resolution 1259, the VA Accountability First Act, by a 237 to 178 vote on March 16 and was referred to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on March 21. A somewhat related bill, the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, passed the Senate on June 6.
The VA Accountability First Act would shorten the appeals process for demoted or terminated employees from 349 days to 45. Demoted employees would no longer be placed on paid leave or receive any pay or bonuses during their appeals, unless approved by the VA to use accrued paid leave time.
Under the bill, the VA could recover bonuses paid to employees whose concealed misconduct is later discovered and could reduce the pension of any retiree guilty of a felony.
The bill would also prohibit the Merit Systems Protection Board, the quasi-judicial agency handling appeals of federal government employees, from staying VA demotions and terminations.
Employees who expose wrongdoing within the bureaucracy would gain protections under the bill, which would bar the VA from using its new removal authority against a whistleblower until the Office of Special Counsel has resolved that whistleblower’s complaint. VA employees accused of retaliating against whistleblowers would have to respond to the allegation within 10 days, instead of 14.
Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), sponsor of the House bill, says the VA Accountability First Act narrowly targets bad actors.
“I’ve said time and time again that the vast majority of the employees at the VA are hardworking and have the best interests of our veterans at heart, but there are still too many bad apples within the department,” Roe stated in a joint press release on March 2.
Rubio says veterans have endured lack of accountability of VA personnel long enough.
“For far too long, incompetent and uncaring employees at the VA have been allowed to fail at their jobs but still keep them,” Rubio stated in the same press release..
Dan Caldwell, policy director at Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), says a prime example of the department’s inadequate accountability is the VA hospital system in Phoenix, Arizona, where 35 veterans died due to inaccurately recorded long wait periods.
“Very little has changed at the VA since the Phoenix scandal broke in 2014, and very few people have been held accountable,” Caldwell said. “Less than 10 people total have been fired for manipulating wait times.”
Incompetence and lack of accountability are widespread within the department and the VA’s 168 medical centers nationwide, Caldwell says.
“The Phoenix VA scandal helped expose a litany of other ongoing problems within the VA, such as wasted funds, misplaced paperwork, and unsterile conditions in operating rooms,” Caldwell said. “A lot of bad VA employees see that their leadership is not held accountable, so they don’t feel any reason to follow the rules themselves.”
VA health centers in North Carolina and Virginia kept one-third of veteran patients waiting more than 30 days to receive care as workers kept spurious records, the VA Office of Inspector General reported in March.
The VA Accountability First Act of 2017 is supported by 12 veterans groups in addition to CVA, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and Paralyzed Veterans of America. The bill is opposed by the Senior Executives Association, which “represents the interests of the 7,200 career senior executive leaders in the federal government,” according to the group’s website.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, a medical doctor, publicly supported the legislation after learning it took 30 days to fire a Houston, Texas VA employee caught watching pornography while with a patient.
“This is an example of why we need accountability legislation as soon as possible,” Shulkin said. “It’s unacceptable that VA has to wait 30 days to act on a proposed removal. … I look forward to working with both the Senate and the House to ensure final legislation gives us the flexibility we need.”
‘Solutions on the Table’
Caldwell says Shulkin’s push to hold VA workers accountable is unprecedented.
“The VA secretary’s involvement in this fight is historic,” Caldwell said. “It’s encouraging that VA leadership recognizes the extent of the problem and that there are great solutions on the table Congress can act on immediately.”
A 2015 study by the Government Accountability Office found “[i]t can take six months to a year (and sometimes longer) to dismiss” a federal employee under the current system.
Roe says Congress should improve the system for the sake of veterans and rank-and-file VA workers alike.
“Our veterans deserve better, and the VA employees who work tirelessly to fulfill their duties deserve better,” Roe said.
Ben Johnson ([email protected]) writes from Stockport, Ohio.
House Resolution 1259, VA Accountability First Act of 2017: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1259/text
Ben Johnson, “Report: One-Third of Veterans Wait More Than 30 days for Care,” Health Care News, The Heartland Institute, May 2017: https://heartland.org/news-opinion/news/report-one-third-of-veterans-wait-more-than-30-days-for-care
Dustin Siggins, “Veterans Call for Accountability as Fix for VA Health Care System,” Health Care News, The Heartland Institute, January 2017: https://heartland.org/news-opinion/news/veterans-call-for-accountability-as-fix-for-va-health-care-system
Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN): http://roe.house.gov/
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