Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said:  “The answer to every VA problem is not ‘give us more money and give us more flexibility.’ ”

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said: “The answer to every VA problem is not ‘give us more money and give us more flexibility.’ ” M. Spencer Green / AP file photo

Lawmakers to VA Officials: Focus on Employees, Not More Spending

VA secretary says department officials will unveil new accountability measure next week.

Lawmakers blasted the Veterans Affairs Department on Thursday for trying to throw money at a problem that can, they said, only truly be fixed by bringing accountability to a culture of corruption that persists at VA.

The Senate Appropriations Committee panel on VA held a hearing to assess the department's budget request for fiscal 2017, which would increase discretionary spending by 4.9 percent to $78 billion. While Secretary Bob McDonald defended the boost as necessary to provide adequate health services to a growing number of qualifying veterans and implement reforms at the department, some committee members said Congress has already given VA enough.

“This subcommittee and this Congress has given you everything you wanted and more,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who chairs the panel. “The answer to every VA problem is not ‘give us more money and give us more flexibility.’ ”

McDonald countered that the new spending -- which comes after decades of consistent funding increases for the department -- would put VA over the edge and on a path to correct its recent shortcomings. 

“These are critical investments if we're serious about transforming VA into the high-performing organization veterans deserve and taxpayers expect,” he said. “Over three decades in the private sector I learned what it takes to be a high-performing organization, and that goal is within our reach.”

Kirk said the real solution at the department lies in rooting out its bad employees.

“We need to fix the corruption culture and all too often poor performance,” the chairman said. “We also need to talk about accountability and veterans first and not bureaucrats.”

VA has worked to improve its accountability measures, with McDonald often pointing to the thousands of workers the department has fired since he took over.  The department has experienced setbacks in recent months, however, as an appeals board reversed officials' attempts to take advantage of a new authority Congress provided in 2014 to fire senior executives. Looking forward, McDonald emphasized on Thursday the need to allow VA employees to perform better, rather than just firing them.

Improving the VA means providing its employees with “clear performance expectations, continuous feedback and performance management systems that encourage continuous improvement and excellence,” McDonald said. “It means executive performance ratings and bonuses reflect actual performance.“

McDonald highlighted VA’s campaign to cut waste, including reducing performance award spending by $150 million and bonuses for Senior Executive Service employees by 64 percent between 2011 and 2015 “by rigorously tying awards to performance.” He also touted travel expense cuts of $500 million.

The secretary asked Congress to authorize reforms that would streamline the claims appeals process, ease the process for veterans to receive care outside of VA facilities and provide him more flexibility to direct appropriations toward problems as they arise. He also touted his plan to move VA’s SES workforce out of Title 5 and onto the VA-specific Title 38, which he said would improve recruiting efforts and increase his own authority in dealing with appeals from employees facing adverse actions.

Asked by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., if the civil service classification change would improve accountability, McDonald said he is “coming up with a proposal” he will unveil next week to address that concern.

“We have had people locked in a room this week, including veterans service organizations and staff members, working on that proposal,” McDonald said.

While Kirk focused on how VA should reduce spending, Tester acknowledged the department’s expenditures are only going to grow. The hiring of physicians and nurses authorized in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act will cost $1.3 billion, Tester said, noting those costs were not currently included in the department’s projected spending. McDonald said he is waiting to see exactly what the Veterans Affairs committees authorize before drafting spending estimates.