By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON—House lawmakers wasted no time beginning the 115th Congress last month with legislation addressing VA accountability.
Among the first bills passed was one requiring all reprimands and admonishments given to VA employees to remain in their file as long as they are employed by the agency. Currently, an admonishment and reprimand can only stay on an employee’s record for two and three years, respectively.
“The reason I introduced this legislation is simple—it allows the Department of Veterans Affairs to maintain accurate records of disciplinary actions against employees,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) in a statement. “The file can then be taken into consideration when an employee is up for a bonus or promotion. My bill is intended to bring more transparency and accountability to the way we serve our veterans.”
The bill, according to his office, “does not impose new penalties or affect the existing due process rights for a VA employee to appeal disciplinary action.”
Also passing the House was a bill directing VA to adopt the FDA’s unique device identification system (UDI) for labeling of all biological implants and to implement an automated inventory system to ensure veterans do not receive expired or otherwise contaminated tissue.
House Committee of Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, MD, (R-TN) who introduced the bill, cited a 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report finding “the VA does not use a standardized process for tracking biological tissue from cadaver donor to living veteran recipient. In the event of a recall, it would often be impossible to track down which patient received contaminated tissue.”
Both laws would need to pass the Senate and be signed by President Donald Trump before becoming law.
“These important pieces of legislation are just two of many steps House Republicans are taking to reform the VA,” Roe said of the bills.
In addition to those proposals, lawmakers took aim at accountability with other legislation last month, including a bill that would require VA to revoke bonuses paid to employees involved in electronic wait-list manipulations.
Republican lawmakers had hoped to see passage of the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act prior to the end of the 114th Congress, but the bill did not make it out of Congress.
Introduced by former House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), who has retired, the bill was controversial; its accountability measures were not supported by the Obama administration, which said in a Statement of Administration Policy that it “would undermine VA’s workforce and could ultimately hinder the ability of the over 330,000 dedicated civil servants at VA to effectively serve veterans.”
Another bill with accountability measures failing to pass Congress prior to the end of the congressional session was the Veterans First Act, which was introduced in the Senate by U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, (R-GA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn). The Obama administration supported that bill, and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) made it clear that it preferred the Veteran’s First Act and urged lawmakers to reject Miller’s bill.
As for other bills left stalled, the AFGE said last month that they opposed the reintroduction of a bill previously introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) that would require civil service employees to be hired on an at-will basis, allowing the employee to “be removed or suspended from service by the agency head for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all, without notice or right to appeal,” according to the bill.
“If this bill had been in place two years ago, we never would have heard about the Phoenix VA wait-list manipulations because no one would have dared come forward to blow the whistle on the supervisors who concocted the scheme,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. argued last month.
In a letter to Rokita, an AFGE legislative representative wrote that the bill will “reduce accountability and government efficiency by allowing supervisors to arbitrarily fire and discipline employees who speak up against mismanagement and wasteful spending.”
Trump also has said he will target VA accountability. The White House website stated that the administration reforms “will begin with firing the corrupt and incompetent VA executives who let our veterans down, modernizing the bureaucracy, and empowering the doctors and nurses to ensure our veterans receive the best care available in a timely manner.”
During his campaign, Trump outlined a 10-point plan to reform VA. It includes:
- Appoint a VA Secretary whose sole purpose will be to serve veterans. Under a Trump Administration, the needs of D.C. bureaucrats will no longer be placed above those of our veterans.
- Use the powers of the presidency to remove and discipline the federal employees and managers who have violated the public’s trust and failed to carry out the duties on behalf of our veterans.
- Ask that Congress pass legislation that empowers the Secretary of the VA to discipline or terminate any employee who has jeopardized the health, safety or well-being of a veteran.
- Create a commission to investigate all the fraud, cover-ups, and wrong-doing that has taken place in the VA, and present these findings to Congress to spur legislative reform.
- Protect and promote honest employees at the VA who highlight wrongdoing, and guarantee their jobs will be protected.
- Create a private White House hotline, which will be active 24 hours a day answered by a real person. It will be devoted to answering veteran’s complaints of wrongdoing at the VA and ensure no complaints fall through the cracks.
- Stop giving bonuses to any VA employees who are wasting money, and start rewarding employees who seek to improve the VA’s service, cut waste, and save lives.
- Reform the visa system to ensure veterans are at the front of the line for health services, not the back.
- Increase the number of mental health care professionals, and allow veteran’s to be able to seek mental health care outside of the VA.
- Ensure every veteran has the choice to seek care at the VA or at a private service provider of their own choice. Under a Trump Administration, no veteran will die waiting for service.
Legislation that would streamline VA’s community care programs into one program and expand VA’s caregiver program to veterans of all eras was signed into law earlier this month..
The good news from a recent consultant study is that, overall, the VA healthcare system is generally equal or better than others when inpatient and outpatient quality is measured.