Legislation for accountability is back on the table for Veterans Affairs employees. VA Secretary David Shulkin has 10 major priorities this year and accountability tops that list. Shulkin told reporters this after his speech to the American Legion, “The House is looking at an accountability bill that I believe they’re going to introduce March 8th and potentially bring to the floor on March 14th. We are working closely with House and Senate colleagues to make sure that this bill actually goes through.”
The VA Accountability First Act of 2017 gives the VA secretary the authority to fire, demote, or suspend any employee in the department based on performance or misconduct. Employees can still appeal the disciplinary action to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Administrative judges have 45 days to decide, during which the employee may not receive any pay or special benefits.
Below is a more in-depth look at what this may look like.
The VA secretary would be able to reduce an employees’ pension is that employee was convicted of a felony which influenced their job performance. The employee would be entitled to notice, an opportunity to respond to the order, and an opportunity to appeal the secretary’s final decision before the OPM Director. An appeal would have to be completed within 30 business days after it was filed.
Disciplinary Action Based on Poor Performance or Misconduct
This part of the legislation would allow the VA secretary to fire, demote, or suspend for longer than two weeks without pay any employee for performance or misconduct. This also applies to Senior Executive Service employees. The employee is entitled to:
- Advance written notice and an opportunity to respond. The period would not exceed 10 business days and a final decision must be provided within five business days of receiving the employee’s response.
- An expedited appeal to an administrative judge at the MSPB. The appeal must be decided within 45 business days and the administrative judge would be required to uphold the removal, demotion, or suspension if it’s supported by substantial evidence.
- A further appeal to the full MSPB Board.
- Limited judicial review of the MSBP decision by the U.S. Federal Circuit.
This bill also allows the VA secretary to recoup bonuses or awards paid out if it is determined that an employee engaged in poor performance or misconduct prior to receiving that bonus. The employee would be entitled to notice, an opportunity to respond to the order, and an opportunity to appeal the secretary’s final decision to the head of another federal agency or department. The appeal must be completed within 30 business days.
Recouping Relocation Expenses
This would allow the VA secretary to recoup relocation expenses paid to an employee if the secretary determines the employee committed an act of fraud, waste, or malfeasance. Prior to recouping the money, the employee would be entitled to notice of the proposed order, an opportunity to respond, and the opportunity to appeal the secretary’s final decision to the head of another federal agency or department.
This legislation also includes improved protection for whistleblowers and gives direct hiring authority to the VA secretary for Medical Centers Directors and Veterans Integrated Service network directors.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) had this to say, “For far too long, incompetent and uncaring employees at the VA have been allowed to fail at their jobs but still keep them. In the past, we’ve passed measures to institute accountability but lacked a president and VA secretary who would implement them and fire VA employees who are failing our veterans. Now it’s time to finally provide our veterans with the quality, efficient health care they have earned and deserve, instead of protecting the big unions seeking to keep the status quo of incompetence and malfeasance.”
This has been an ongoing topic for Congress and the VA. Accountability proposals were offered last year but none were passed.
“One of the things this accountability bill is going to do is to give Dr. Shulkin, who’s asked for these things, the ability to fire or to hold people accountable for what they do,” House VA Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN) said.
The VA quit using the VA Choice Act to fire poor performers in 2016 after the Justice Department questioned its’ constitutionality.
Shulkin also said, “When people lose their values and have deviated from the ethics and the values that we all hold dearly, they no longer have the right to work in the VA. We’re going to make sure they don’t work in the VA.”
Shulkin is working on legislation with Congress that would temporarily extend the Veterans Choice Program, set to expire August 7th. The Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (Choice Act) was passed in reaction to long wait times at VA hospitals across the country. He will then work with Congress to redesign the current Choice program. The goal is to combine the best of VA care with the best of private sector care in one seamless experience.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) said, “The VA does the best job of anybody on PTSD, traumatic brain injury, other prostheses, and others. But there’s also medical care that veterans need and they need it immediately. They shouldn’t have to wait on a waiting list.”
Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), ranking member of the Senate VA Committee said, “Community care should be a seamless and efficient process that is easier for veterans and providers to navigate in way too many instances. Middlemen, the third-party administrators, are getting in the way. It is past time for them to shape up or ship out.”
Shulkin also named 10 top priorities for the department this year:
- Employee accountability legislation
- Temporary extension to veterans Choice program
- Redesign Choice program
- Improving VA infrastructure
- Enhance VA foundational services
- Better collaboration between VA and Defense Department
- Interoperable electronic health records and improvements to VA IT systems
- Suicide prevention programs
- Appeals modernization
- Improving performance at Veterans Benefits Administration
Modernizing the VA infrastructure and facilities is an important one. They have 336 vacant buildings and 10.5 million square feet of unused space that are still part of the department. Consolidation may happen where is makes sense. They also want to invest in world class facilities.