Tim Walz (D-MN) Whistleblowers to Get More Protection
WASHINGTON — After years of partisan grappling over how best to increase accountability among VA employees, the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection was created through presidential executive order last month.
The VA announced last month that Peter O’Rourke will serve as senior adviser and executive director of the office. O’Rourke is a veteran of both the Navy and Air Force who has held executive roles in nonprofit, consulting and the federal government. In his new role, he will report directly to the VA secretary.
“We need to hold our employees accountable for their actions if they violate the public trust, and at the same time protect whistleblowers from retaliation,” VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, emphasized. “Setting up this office under the strong leadership of Peter O’Rourke will give us the tools to do just that.”
The executive order creating the new office and position was signed at the end of April by President Donald Trump. In response, both Republicans and Democrats took credit for the idea.
The executive order explains that the office will “advise and assist the secretary in using, as appropriate, all available authorities to discipline or terminate any VA manager or employee who has violated the public’s trust and failed to carry out his or her duties on behalf of veterans, and to recruit, reward, and retain high-performing employees.”
In addition, the office will “identify statutory barriers to the secretary’s authority to discipline or terminate any employee who has jeopardized the health, safety, or well-being of a veteran, and to recruit, reward, and retain high-performing employees; and report such barriers to the Secretary for consideration as to the need for legislative changes.”
President Donald Trump, left, visited VA’s Central Office this spring to sign the executive order entitled, “Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the Department of Veterans Affairs.” He’s shown here with VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD. VA photo Robert Turtil “From the beginning, the idea to create this office was championed for multiple Congresses by Democrats, despite Republican attempts to stonewall its implementation because they were unwilling to invest the relatively small amount of money required to create the new office and staff it appropriately,” House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) said in a statement after the announcement.
Meanwhile, Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) noted that the idea of such an office “mirrors a proposal first introduced by Isakson in his Veterans First Act from last Congress.”
The establishment of the new office came as whistleblower legislation was making its way through Congress. Just weeks after the new office was created, the Senate passed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. The bill was sent to the House this month for a vote.
Introduced by Isakson and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jon Tester (D-MT), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the billwould increase “VA’s authority to remove employees at all levels of the department, shorten the removal process and ensure an individual removed from the VA is not kept on the VA’s payroll while appealing that decision.”
It also codifies in law the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within the VA.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) voiced its opposition to the bill, noting among other objections that the bill would “lower the burden of proof required to terminate a VA employee from a preponderance of the evidence to substantial evidence—meaning employees could be fired even if most of the evidence is in the employee’s favor.”
“Trampling on the rights of honest, hardworking public sector employees is not the solution to holding bad employees accountable for their actions,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said.
On the House side, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) indicated their support for the Senate bill.
“In order to bring wholesale reform to VA, we must give Secretary Shulkin the tools to fire or discipline employees who don’t live up to the standards expected of those serving our nation’s heroes. We thank Senators Isakson, Rubio and Tester for their work to get a bipartisan bill to the House, and we’re glad House leaders acted quickly to schedule a vote on this important bill,” they wrote.
The introduction of the Senate bill follows a House bill passed in March that also would provide the VA secretary with enhanced authority to remove, demote or suspend any VA employee, including senior executive service employees. Introduced by Roe, the VA Accountability First Act of 2017 passed the House with the support of 227 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Walz and other Democrats opposed the House the bill, which they said they saw as going too far.
Shulkin had indicated his support for both the Senate and House legislation.
“I have increasing confidence Congress will provide me and future secretaries the authority we need to hold our employees accountable and protect whistleblowers from retaliation,” he said.
A facility-specific survey found that 138 of 140 VA facilities reported shortages of medical officers, with psychiatry and primary care positions being the most frequently listed.
When Terrence O’Neil, MD, retired as chief of nephrology at the James H. Quillen VAMC in Johnson City in December 2016, he left in his wake decades of work treating kidney disease—nearly 35 years in the Air Force and DoD, plus 11 more at VA.