Congress passes long-sought VA ac­count­abil­ity bill

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY HOPE YEN

Congress ap­proved long-sought leg­is­la­tion Tues­day to make fir­ing em­ploy­ees eas­ier for the De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, part of an ef­fort urged by Pres­i­dent Trump to fix a strug­gling agency serv­ing mil­lions of vet­er­ans.

The House cleared the bill, 36855, re­plac­ing an ear­lier ver­sion that Democrats had crit­i­cized as overly un­fair to work­ers. The Se­nate passed the bi­par­ti­san leg­is­la­tion by voice vote last week. It will go to Mr. Trump later this week for his sig­na­ture.

The mea­sure comes af­ter a 2014 scan­dal at the Phoenix VA med­i­cal cen­ter, where some vet­er­ans died wait­ing months for ap­point­ments while ad­min­is­tra­tors faked records on the mat­ter so as to re­main el­i­gi­ble for bonuses.

In the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Mr. Trump promised to fire VA em­ploy­ees “who let our vet­er­ans down,” de­scrib­ing the gov­ern­ment’s sec­ond-largest agency and its more than 350,000 em­ploy­ees as “the most cor­rupt” and “in­com­pe­tent.”

Rep. Phil Roe, Ten­nessee Re­pub­li­can and chair­man of the House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, said the leg­is­la­tion was a nec­es­sary first step in over­haul­ing the VA. Congress will soon take up leg­is­la­tion to give vet­er­ans ex­panded ac­cess to doc­tors out­side the VA.

“For far too long, the fail­ures of the bad ac­tors have tar­nished the good name of all VA em­ploy­ees,” Mr. Roe said. “No ef­fort to­ward real, whole­sale re­form at the de­part­ment will ever be suc­cess­ful ab­sent a strong cul­ture of ac­count­abil­ity first.”

The House vote came as fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions into pos­si­ble col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sia con­tin­ued to hang over much of Wash­ing­ton, largely stalling the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s big­gest leg­isla­tive ini­tia­tives.

House lead­ers were quick to tout progress on vet­er­ans’ is­sues.

“We’ve been talk­ing about this for about three years. And we un­cov­ered all the scan­dals at the VA. Now we’re mak­ing law,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wis­con­sin Re­pub­li­can. “Now we’re get­ting the vet­er­ans the kind of re­sponse and the kind of ac­count­abil­ity they earned and de­served.”

The bill was backed by VA Sec­re­tary David Shulkin, who called the em­ployee ac­count­abil­ity process “clearly bro­ken.” It would lower the bur­den of proof to fire em­ploy­ees, 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 Se­nate-passed 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 ap­peal process than the House’s ver­sion — 180 days vs. 45 days. VA ex­ec­u­tives would be held to a tougher stan­dard than rank-and-file em­ploy­ees.

The Se­nate bill also would turn a cam­paign prom­ise of Mr. Trump’s into law. It would cre­ate a per­ma­nent VA ac­count­abil­ity of­fice, es­tab­lished in April by ex­ec­u­tive or­der.

The VA has been plagued for years by prob­lems, in­clud­ing the 2014 scan­dal, where em­ploy­ees cre­ated se­cret lists to cover up de­lays in ap­point­ments. Crit­ics say few em­ploy­ees are fired for malfea­sance.

Mr. Trump praised the leg­is­la­tion when it passed the Se­nate last week, urg­ing the House on Twit­ter to “get this bill to my desk ASAP!” House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy, Cal­i­for­nia Re­pub­li­can, promised to get it done this week.

Vet­er­ans’ groups cheered the bill. “Vet­er­ans across the coun­try can look for­ward to a new cul­ture of ac­count­abil­ity and in­tegrity at the VA,” said Dan Cald­well, pol­icy di­rec­tor of the Con­cerned Vet­er­ans for Amer­ica, which lob­bied for years to pass leg­is­la­tion.

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