Trump to sign Veterans Affairs reform bill by the end of the week

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

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump is expected to sign legislation Tuesday that makes it easier to fire employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill passed the Senate last week and is part of a focus of the Trump administration to make reforming the ailing agency a priority.”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 a month before the election at a rally in front of battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia.The bill 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. “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.) on Tuesday. “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.”The bill comes after several years of scandals in which veterans complained of substandard care and long waiting lists for appointments. In 2014, at least 35 veterans reportedly died while waiting for appointments at the VA Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona sparking an investigation and national attention on the issue of veterans having to wait for lifesaving care. In April, VA Secretary David Shulkin, M.D., visited the VA hospital in Durham.”We are moving quickly to find that where there are bad employees, we root them out of the VA system, because we’re not going to tolerate employees that don’t match up to our values,” said Shulkin during his visit to Durham. He was joined at the podium by the Director of the Durham center, DeAnne Seekins. “But I will remind you – the vast majority of our employees are really among the best that we have in the country. I saw that today with just amazing dedication from employees here at this medical center.”Just a day before Shulkin’s visit to Durham, President Trump issued an executive order that created the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection with in the VA. The EO also ordered the review of disciplinary and other processes that critics say led to the problems within the agency. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin urged Congress on Wednesday to pass a law that would let him respond more quickly to employee misconduct, such as the case of a psychiatrist who was caught watching pornography on an iPad while seeing a patient.Shulkin, in a briefing on the state of the department, said that veterans’ access to medical care had improved significantly since a scandal over wait times three years ago prompted the resignation of a VA secretary and forced major reforms.But Shulkin, who served as undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for Health in the Obama administration, said a review of 137 studies and assessments identified 13 areas of “significant risk,” including rules that keep the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from moving quickly to fire employees for 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 law requires 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 buildings were falling into disrepair and needed more than $18 billion worth of repairs. 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 First World War era.The VA spends $25 million a year maintaining 400 vacant buildings and 735 underutilized facilities, Shulkin said.Shulkin said the department’s computer systems also needed modernization. He said he planned to make major decisions on upgrading the systems by July this year.