Trump to sign bill cracking down on bad employees at Veterans Affairs

Executive order is latest step to try and reform VA

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump is expected to sign legislation this week that makes it easier to fire employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill passed the U.S. Senate last week and is part of a focus of the Trump administration to reform the ailing agency.”We’re going to make the VA great again and we’re going to do it by firing the corrupt and incompetent VA executives who let our veterans down,” Trump said at a campaign rally in front of battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Va.The bill, called the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, speeds the process and lowers the bar for firing a VA employee from a “preponderance” of evidence to “substantial” evidence of wrongdoing. Higher level officials within the organization would be held to a stricter standard. It would also forbid VA employees from getting bonuses or benefits for being relocated. Further, it puts a supervisor’s commitment to protecting whistleblowers on their performance evaluations.”I recognize there are many good, hard-working people at our local VA hospitals — many of them are veterans themselves,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), who supports the legislation. “It’s the unaccountable bureaucracy that hurts veterans and makes it impossible for them to get the timely care and benefits they deserve. What’s more, VA employees who are responsible for the backlogs, lying or manipulating wait times aren’t held accountable. Only in Washington would it take an act of Congress to fire employees who aren’t doing their jobs, and today we’re getting it done.”On Tuesday at a breakfast in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin pushed back on speculation that the measure was a step toward privatizing the VA or erosion of federal worker protections. He did say, however, that the agency will be looking more to the private sector for new hires.”This is not a move towards privatization,” said Shulkin. “This is doing what is right by our veterans. … If I am going to change this organization, the ability to remove the employees that clearly in my view no longer should have the privilege of serving our veterans take a different path.”Shulkin visited Durham’s veteran’s hospital in April, just a day after Trump issued an executive order that created the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within the VA. The EO ordered the review of disciplinary and other processes that critics say led to the problems within the agency.The focus follows years of reported misconduct within the VA. In 2014, at least 35 veterans died while waiting for appointments at the VA Hospital in Phoenix, sparking an investigation that uncovered mishandled paperwork and efforts to cover up the problems.In a briefing on the state of the department last month, Shulkin, who served as undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for Health in the Obama administration, said that veterans’ access to medical care had improved significantly since the scandal over wait times, but said he needed a law that would let him respond more quickly to employee misconduct.”We currently have 1,500 disciplinary actions that are pending, meaning people that either need to be fired, demoted (or) suspended without pay for violating our core values,” Shulkin told reporters.”Our accountability processes are clearly broken. We have to wait more than a month to fire a psychiatrist who was caught on camera watching pornography using his iPad while seeing a veteran,” Shulkin said.A VA news release on March 31 said an internal review recommended that the person be dismissed, but the previous law required a 30-day waiting period before a final decision can be carried out. It said the psychiatrist was removed from patient care and placed on administrative duties.”We need new accountability legislation, and we need that now,” Shulkin said.In a case in Puerto Rico, he said, the department was forced to take back an employee who had been convicted of driving under the influence several times and had served a 60-day jail term.Shulkin also warned that Veterans Affairs computer systems needed modernization and buildings were falling into disrepair, needing more than $18 billion worth of work. VA buildings on average are 60 years old and include 449 from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. He said 591 others are from the World War I era.The VA spends $25 million a year maintaining 400 vacant buildings and 735 underutilized facilities, Shulkin said.