Se­nate leg­is­la­tion makes it eas­ier to fire VA su­per­vi­sors

New bill would in­stall a per­ma­nent ac­count­abil­ity of­fice

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY HOPE YEN

The Se­nate ap­proved broad leg­is­la­tion Tues­day to make fir­ing em­ploy­ees eas­ier for the be­lea­guered De­part­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs, part of an ac­count­abil­ity ef­fort urged by Pres­i­dent Trump af­ter years of high-pro­file prob­lems.

The bi­par­ti­san mea­sure passed by voice vote. It comes more than three years af­ter a 2014 scan­dal at the Phoenix VA med­i­cal cen­ter, where some veter­ans died while wait­ing months for ap­point­ments. VA em­ploy­ees cre­ated se­cret lists to cover up de­lays while keep­ing them­selves el­i­gi­ble for per­for­mance bonuses.

The bill would lower the bur­den of proof needed to fire em­ploy­ees from a “pre­pon­der­ance” to “sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence,” al­low­ing a dis­missal even if most ev­i­dence is in a worker’s fa­vor.

The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Em­ploy­ees, the largest fed­eral em­ployee union, op­posed the bill. But the mea­sure was viewed as more in bal­ance with work­ers’ rights than a ver­sion passed by the House in March, mostly along party lines.

The Se­nate bill calls for a longer ap­peals process than the House’s ver­sion — 180 days ver­sus 45 days — though work­ers would not be paid dur­ing that ap­peal. VA ex­ec­u­tives also would be held to a tougher stan­dard than rank-and-file em­ploy­ees.

The bill now goes back to the House, where the re­vi­sions are ex­pected to be ap­proved.

The VA has been plagued by years of prob­lems, and crit­ics com­plain that too few em­ploy­ees are pun­ished for malfea­sance.

The Associated Press re­ported last week that fed­eral au­thor­i­ties were in­ves­ti­gat­ing dozens of new cases of pos­si­ble opi­oid and other drug theft by em­ploy­ees at VA hos­pi­tals, even af­ter the VA an­nounced “zero tol­er­ance” in Fe­bru­ary.

Since 2009, in only about 3 per­cent of the re­ported cases of drug loss or theft have doc­tors, nurses or phar­macy em­ploy­ees been dis­ci­plined.

“The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple who work at the VA are good, hard-work­ing em­ploy­ees who serve our veter­ans well,” said Sen. Marco Ru­bio, Florida Re­pub­li­can. “But it has be­come clear un­der the cur­rent law the VA is of­ten un­will­ing or un­able to hold in­di­vid­u­als ap­pro­pri­ately ac­count­able for their ac­tions and mis­deeds.”

He was a lead spon­sor of the bill along with Demo­crat Jon Tester of Mon­tana and Re­pub­li­can Johnny Isak­son of Geor­gia.

“To shield em­ploy­ees from con­se­quences brings down the en­tire de­part­ment, it de­mor­al­izes the work­force and un­der­mines the core mis­sion of the VA,” Mr. Ru­bio said.

The Se­nate bill would cod­ify into law a Trump cam­paign prom­ise — a per­ma­nent VA ac­count­abil­ity of­fice, which was es­tab­lished in April by ex­ec­u­tive or­der. The leg­is­la­tion would give the head of the ac­count­abil­ity of­fice more in­de­pen­dent au­thor­ity and re­quire reg­u­lar up­dates to Congress. The of­fice would also main­tain a toll-free num­ber and web­site to re­ceive anony­mous whistle­blower dis­clo­sures.

Dan Cald­well, pol­icy di­rec­tor of the con­ser­va­tive Con­cerned Veter­ans for Amer­ica, hailed the bill’s pas­sage as “long over­due.”

“The reg­u­lar hor­ror sto­ries have made it clear that veter­ans de­serve much bet­ter,” he said.

De­spite prob­lems at the VA, Congress has had dif­fi­culty com­ing to agree­ment on a bill. A 2014 law gave the VA greater power to dis­ci­pline ex­ec­u­tives, but the de­part­ment stopped us­ing that au­thor­ity af­ter the Obama Jus­tice De­part­ment deemed it likely un­con­sti­tu­tional.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Af­ter the wait­list scan­dals, the Se­nate hopes to as­sist new Veter­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary David J. Shulkin to hold VA su­per­vi­sors ac­count­able for their poor per­for­mances.

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