Con­gress ap­proves changes at VA

Trump is ex­pected to sign the bill, which makes it eas­ier to dis­ci­pline em­ploy­ees.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Lau­ren Rosen­blatt lau­ren.rosen­blatt@la­times.com Twit­ter: @LRosen­blatt

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

Civil ser­vant unions con­demned the leg­is­la­tion, ap­proved 368 to 55 on Tues­day, as an end-run around long­stand­ing pro­tec­tions for gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees and whis­tle-blow­ers.

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; he tweeted 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 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 this month and Trump has pro­posed an in­crease in fund­ing for the Veter­ans Choice Pro­gram.

The bill would make it eas­ier to fire em­ploy­ees for cause, adds some pro­tec­tions for whis­tle-blow­ers 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, says the bill will re­place a sys­tem he de­scribes as too bu­reau­cratic, too slow and too le­nient on em­ploy­ees, send­ing the mes­sage that the “days of em­ploy­ees who en­gage in fla­grant mis­con­duct” are over.

In a state­ment sup­port­ing the act, the House Com­mit­tee on Veter­ans Af­fairs cited 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 warn that the bill — which low­ers the 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 might serve as a model for civil ser­vants in other gov­ern­ment de­part­ments.

The bill is de­signed to speed up the dis­ci­pline and ter­mi­na­tion process. 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 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 the VA’s un­der­sec­re­tary for health un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, a po­si­tion some thought might make him an ob­sta­cle to the changes. 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 mil­i­tary vet­eran.

In re­sponse to fears that the new law might be used im­prop­erly to pun­ish whis­tle-blow­ers — 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.

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

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) says 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 news con­fer­ence be­fore the vote.

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

“The good em­ployee shows up to work ev­ery day, 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 the 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 be 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, says 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 depart­ment lead­er­ship.

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

Su­san Walsh As­so­ci­ated Press

VETER­ANS AF­FAIRS Sec­re­tary David Shulkin will have more power to fire depart­ment man­agers. Civil ser­vant unions say it erodes fed­eral work­ers’ rights.

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