Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton unveils her plan to reform VA.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton unveils her plan to reform VA. Jim Cole/AP

Clinton: Hold VA Employees Accountable, But Respect Due Process

Democratic presidential candidate offers wide-ranging VA reform plan with no specifics on how she might change the personnel system.

On the eve of Veterans Day, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pledged to hold employees at the Veterans Affairs Department accountable for their performance and conduct without sacrificing due process, if she becomes commander-in-chief.

Clinton on Tuesday rolled out her plan to reform the VA and expand services and benefits to military families, in conjunction with an appearance at a veterans’ forum in New Hampshire sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The 12-page “fact sheet” outlined the candidate’s ideas including “reorganizing and streamlining” the Veterans Health Administration, ending the disability compensation backlog, increasing jobs for vets, and revamping the department’s employee performance evaluation system.

The plan did not offer any specifics on how exactly the candidate would “create a culture of accountability, service and excellence” at the VA. The fact sheet, while praising VA Secretary Bob McDonald for refocusing the department’s core mission on vets, said more work was needed to reform the department’s personnel management. The plan said Clinton supports legislation that holds employees accountable for their performance and conduct, but did not specify any particular legislation. “From the top leadership to mid-level managers to entry-level employees, everyone at the VA must embody the highest workplace standards,” the platform stated. “Supervisors must be empowered to suspend or remove underperforming employees in accordance with due process not only for the good of the organization, but in service of our nation’s veterans.”

The 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which President Obama signed into law last summer and many Democrats supported, makes it easier to discipline and fire senior executives. The 2015 VA Accountability Act, which the House passed in July, would apply those provisions making it easier to demote and remove top career officials to all department employees. Several Democrats, including Obama, oppose the 2015 bill.

Critics of loosening the restrictions related to firing career government employees at the VA, or elsewhere, argue that it’s constitutionally questionable, infringing on due process, and that it could have a chilling effect on whistleblowers. Some fear it also could be abused, leading to employees being fired as a result of political retribution. But House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the bill’s sponsor, has said instilling greater accountability is the fastest way to change the dysfunctional workforce culture at the VA.

The Hill on Tuesday published an op-ed from Miller that criticized VA’s “indefensible civil service rules that put the job security of failing VA bureaucrats ahead of the safety of the veterans they are charged with serving are prolonging the agency’s problems indefinitely.” Acting Undersecretary for Benefits at VA Danny Pummill recently testified before the committee that the firing process in the federal government is “very, very hard” and “impossible” to navigate.

A conservative veterans group criticized Clinton’s proposed VA reform plan. “Her lack of specificity on improving accountability at the VA is also highly troubling,” said Pete Hegseth, chief executive officer of Concerned Veterans for America, in a statement. “While seeming to agree that VA employees should be held accountable for their performance, she provides no details on what measures she would support that would give VA leaders the ability to ensure such accountability, despite the fact that a bipartisan solution – the VA Accountability Act – is already moving through Congress.” CVA has launched ads in Florida and South Carolina slamming Clinton for appearing to downplay the wait times and data manipulation scandal at the VA.

Clinton’s lengthy fact sheet on her plan to “support our veterans, troops, and their families” seemed to rebut those criticisms. “Long wait times for health care, crippling claims backlogs, and lack of coordination among agencies represent government at its worst,” the fact sheet said. “Secretary Clinton recognizes the gravity of these challenges, and as president will pursue a veteran-centric reform agenda that tackles problems head-on and revitalizes the VA. She will end the excuses and ensure our veterans receive the timely health care they deserve.” The fact sheet also said Clinton opposes wholesale privatization of the VA system – a point the candidate emphasized on Tuesday during her New Hampshire appearance.

A new poll released on Tuesday showed strong opposition among veterans to proposals related to privatizing VA health care and hospitals. The poll, commissioned by the non-partisan Vet Voice Foundation and conducted by Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners and Republican polling group Chesapeake Beach Consulting, showed that 56 percent of all respondents said they opposed privatization of VA hospitals and health care systems (68 percent of Democrats; 57 percent of Independents; and 48 percent of Republicans). “This is a voting issue,” concluded the poll, which included 800 vets, with 35 percent of respondents identifying as Republican; 25 percent identifying as Democratic; and 34 percent calling themselves Independent. “Regardless of age, party identification, or region, veterans are less likely to vote for a candidate for high-level elected office if they supported privatizing the VA.”

The idea of privatizing some or all of veterans’ health care is not new; in fact, the Choice Act expands vets' access to private health care rather than waiting too long for a VA appointment, and the department has a long history of working with the private sector on providing certain services to vets.

Clinton’s rival for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, also released his vision for improving the VA and service to vets this week before Veterans Day. O’Malley in his plan said that the department’s problem in delivering timely and quality health care to vets “goes beyond reforming an unwieldy bureaucracy.”

Among other things, O’Malley proposed deploying “VetStat,” a program he developed as Maryland governor to track the needs of vets in his state, to “pinpoint and ameliorate problems at the VA before they spiral into widespread crises,” adding that the data system “would improve senior policymakers’ visibility into service delivery on the frontlines and help them allocate resources optimally.” The former Baltimore mayor used a similar approach to crime-fighting in that city. The O’Malley plan also calls for new hiring preferences for vets applying to VA jobs. “One specific program of relevance would to train and employ recently separated veterans as mental health professionals, streamlining them into the VA to serve their peers,” according to the platform.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is also running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has served as the head of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and is a current member of the panel. Last year, he helped shepherd the 2014 Choice Act into law. As president, Sanders said he would “substantially improve” the compensation claims process for vets and expand the department’s caregivers programs, according to his campaign website.

Vets’ issues are likely to surface during Tuesday night’s Republican debate and Saturday’s Democratic debate, given the events’ proximity to Veterans Day.