A year ago, Americans woke to the headlines of a secret list of veterans waiting to receive healthcare at a Phoenix Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital and the resignation of VA Secretary and Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki. Veteran patients died while waiting for care, and the sacred bond between our government and its war veterans was shattered.
In June 2014, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) called on President Obama and Congress to execute a new Marshall Plan for Veterans: a bold, comprehensive effort to restore confidence in the VA. As part of that plan, IAVA called for full criminal investigations for those bad actors who ruined the reputation of the VA and harmed its veteran patients. Those who have violated America’s sacred trust with our veterans must be held accountable, which is why IAVA supports H.R. 1994 — the VA Accountability Act of 2015 — introduced by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).
The bipartisan legislation would build on the provision of the Veterans’ Access to Choice and Accountability Act (VACAA), passed last summer, giving the VA secretary the power to remove Senior Executive Service (upper management personnel) for poor performance or misconduct. The new legislation would expand that power further for the greater VA workforce, giving the secretary increased authority to remove those employees who are not meeting the standards of service that veterans deserve. Additionally, the legislation would shorten the appeal period and end what many veterans believe is a never-ending process to remove employees that may be damaging the department’s reputation and, even worse, putting veterans at risk.
Opposed by the labor union representing federal workers, the union argues that by reducing the appeals period for a removed VA employee, it creates an “at-will” employment scenario for which federal workers cannot receive due process. Further, the union believes this law would result in talented potential VA employees avoiding careers at the department for fear they would not receive fair treatment under the law or less protection there than at other federal agencies.
However, under the provisions of the legislation, the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) would continue to function as a recourse for employees who are removed under this authority. Further, as almost every proponent of this measure has stated, this authority would be rarely used and reserved only for those few instances for which it is needed.
The vast majority of VA employees do great work everyday and they deserve to work with colleagues who share their values. The status quo of VA claiming it is taking enough corrective action in a timely fashion is simply not a view veterans share across the country. Our members call our Rapid Response Referral Program veteran case managers frequently, asking for help in navigating VA bureaucracy or accessing mental health assistance. The last thing they need is to deal with VA employees who are unwilling to put the patient first.
Earlier this year, current VA Secretary Bob McDonald testified before Miller’s House VA Committee that Congress would need to expand removal authority in order for the department to possess the flexibility to get results in cleaning up some of the workforce issues. The VA Accountability Act would provide this requested flexibility and the time has come for VA leaders to embrace the legislation and listen to our veterans. There is no reason a problematic VA employee’s concerning actions should be allowed to exist in perpetuity or that veterans and taxpayers should have to wait six months to a year for department leadership to remove them.
The protections that are afforded VA employees will continue, but the VA Accountability Act brings an end to what appears — in the view of too many veterans — to be a never-ending removal process that does not hold people accountable. IAVA will continue to challenge the status quo on this issue and we applaud Chairman Miller and the bipartisan coalition in Congress supporting the VA Accountability Act for taking action to restore trust at the VA.
This article was originally published in The Hill