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Congress approves VA reform bill that will make it easier to fire department managers

Congress approves VA reform bill that will make it easier to fire department managers
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. (Susan Walsh / AP)

The House gave final passage Tuesday to a bill that will make it easier for the troubled Veterans Affairs Department to fire managers accused of misconduct.

But civil servant unions condemned the legislation, approved 368 to 55, as an end-run around long-standing protections for government employees and whistle-blowers.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 passed the Senate on June 6. President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law, tweeting last week that "we can't tolerate substandard care for our vets."

The act, which won bipartisan support and endorsements from veterans' groups, is the latest attempt by Capitol Hill to respond to the 2014 VA scandals involving long wait times for medical care and attempts by VA employees to cover up the delays.

During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to improve healthcare for veterans and the efficiency of the VA. The White House opened a veterans' complaints hotline earlier this month and Trump proposed an increase in funding for the Veterans Choice Program in his fiscal budget.

The reform bill would make it easier to fire employees for cause, adds some protections for whistleblowers and puts more power in the hands of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

Dan Caldwell, director of policy for Concerned Veterans for America, an advocacy group, said the bill will replace a system he said is too bureaucratic, too slow and too lenient on employees, sending the message that the "days of employees who engage in flagrant misconduct" are over.

The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs cited in a statement supporting the act several cases in which the department was not able to discipline employees for incidents such as armed robbery, intoxication during surgery and failure to manage major construction projects.

Caldwell called the bill a "key reform that needs to be implemented before you can start addressing...anything at all, because if you don't have accountability then any type of future reforms will be undermined."

But unions representing some VA workers warned that the bill — which lowers the current standard of evidence needed to remove workers for misconduct — could be misused for political purposes and will do little to address the agency's problems, including overburdened medical facilities and thousands of unfilled healthcare positions.

"This upends nearly 140 years of civil service law, and makes VA employees very close to 'at will,' which seems to be the real objective of the drafters of this provision," said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, at a May 17 Senate hearing. "Although marketed as a bill to make it easier to fire bad employees, the proposals are designed to kill off and bury the apolitical Civil Service. It makes it just as easy to fire a good employee, an innocent employee, as it will be to fire a bad employee."

Both supporters and opponents say the legislation could serve as a model for civil servants in other government departments.

The bill is designed to speed up the discipline and termination process. Under the bill, the process to decide on action must take no more than 15 business days and the individual employee must respond within seven business days. It now takes six months to a year to remove a permanent civil servant in the federal government, according to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

The act would also allow Shulkin to reduce an employee's federal pension if they are involved in a felony affecting their position, or recoup a fired employee's bonus and relocation expenses.

Shulkin previously served as VA's undersecretary for health under the Obama administration, a position some thought might make him an obstacle to the reforms. Others thought Shulkin might speed up the process since he was already an established leader in the department. He has held several executive and physician roles at medical centers and is the first VA secretary who is not a veteran.

In response to fears that the new law might be used improperly to punish whistleblowers — who were crucial to exposing the agency's problems in 2014 — the legislation will create a new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. Trump signed an executive order in April directing the secretary to create such an office to improve accountability and protect employees who lawfully disclose wrongdoing.

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The bill also introduces a new position of assistant secretary for accountability and whistleblower protection, who will run the office and review all whistleblower disclosures and any allegations of misconduct for employees in senior executive or supervisory positions, as well as employees in positions regarding policy or confidential positions. The assistant secretary is also charged with creating guidelines to protect whistleblowers and provide consistent training on how to file a disclosure.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said the legislation — one of the few bipartisan legislative accomplishments since Trump took office — will improve care for veterans. "Now we're getting the veterans the kind of response and the kind of accountability they earned and deserved," he said at a press conference before the vote.

Supporters of the bill say it will help VA employee morale.

"The good employee shows up to work everyday, deals with the struggles of traffic, showing up and doing their job, and then you get these poor performers who are sitting home appeal after appeal getting paid," said Louis Celli Jr., national director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for American Legion, another veterans advocacy group. "I think by and large the average VA employee will be relieved."

Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Assn., an organization that provides resources for federal senior executives and professionals, is worried about the opposite effect.

"This kind of legislation just carries on that perception that if we beat federal employees enough, morale will improve," Valdez said. "This legislation does nothing to incentivize federal employees to do their jobs better, but does everything to tell them you're going to punished if we even suspect you're doing something wrong."

Instead, Valdez said he would like to see the department implement a new framework that focuses on risk and reward, creating an environment that will attract and retain new employees. The department still has more than 45,000 vacant positions.

Rory Riley, a consultant who has worked with veterans groups for more than 10 years, said targeting senior executives will start the cultural change she thinks is necessary for reform of the department. "You need people to start implementing the change, others to observe it and then have a trickle-down effect," she said, referring to the leadership of the department.

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Following the same idea, she hopes this bill will act as a "catalyst for civil service reform nationwide."

UPDATES:

3:25 p.m.: This article was updated with the vote tally.

This article was originally published at 2:35 p.m.

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