Democrats Also Want to Make It Easier to Fire VA Execs

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Cliff Owen/AP

A new bill from the Democratic leader on veterans issues would cut the red tape involved in firing senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department, but ensure due process protections.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, will introduce The 2014 Restoring Veterans’ Trust Act this week, which will serve as the primary Democratic solution to the agency’s systemic issues. Similarly to House and Senate Appropriations Committee-backed legislation, Sanders’ bill would empower the VA secretary to fire senior executives at the agency “immediately.”

Unlike the House’s VA Management and Accountability Act, however, Sanders promised to uphold due process for outgoing Senior Executive Service employees. Sanders said his bill would prevent “wholesale political firings,” a major concern with the House bill raised by legal experts and federal employee advocates. The exact legislative language is still being worked out, but a spokesman for the senator said while senior executives would be vulnerable to immediate removal, they would maintain “expedited” appeal rights with the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Sanders was adamant that employees responsible for altering or destroying evidence of veterans’ extended waits for treatment must be reprimanded, but said the problems go deeper than a few misbehaving workers.

“There must be a culture of honesty and accountability within the VA and people who have lied or manipulated data must be punished,” Sanders said. “But we also have to get to the root causes of the problems that have been exposed. The simple truth is that with 2 million more veterans coming into the system in recent years, there are many facilities within the VA that do not have the doctors, nurses and other personnel that they need to provide quality care in a timely way.”

The bill, which will receive a committee hearing on Thursday, would give VA direct hiring authority -- eliminating competitive rating and ranking, veterans’ preference and other standard hiring restrictions -- and provide emergency funding to onboard more medical personnel. It would also, similar to a Sanders bill Senate Republicans derailed in February, create 27 new VA medical facilities.

The House bill, which passed with significant Democratic support, would waive a mandatory 30-day notification period for senior executives before being terminated. The waiting period allows executives to receive the charges, see the evidence against them and offer up a defense. That bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., renewed his call for the legislation to become law in a Time op-ed on Monday, accusing the Senate of blocking its passage.

“As the reports [into the VA scandal] make painfully obvious, the environment in today’s Veterans Health Administration is one in which some VA health officials are so driven in their quest for performance bonuses, promotions and power that they are willing to lie, cheat and put the health of the veterans they were hired to serve at risk,” Miller wrote. “These are not people who deserve a second chance. They deserve a swift exit from federal employment, and possibly an entrance to federal prison.”

A Government Executive analysis found VA has fired for discipline or performance just three senior executives since 2008. 

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