Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he is optimistic about finding common ground.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he is optimistic about finding common ground. David Goldman/AP file photo

Lawmakers, VA Eye More Civil Service Reforms After New Firing Law

Senators also debate how to expand the role of the private sector in vets' health care.

Just weeks after President Trump signed into law an overhaul of how the Veterans Affairs Department fires employees, Congress is taking another crack at major civil service reforms at the agency.

The proposals focused primarily on recruiting and hiring changes, such as giving the secretary greater latitude on onboarding and creating new pipelines for students and recent graduates to join VA’s ranks. The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee also considered the best avenues to streamline and expand veterans’ access to private health care. Both issues have captured the attention of lawmakers and VA for years, with the department itself reporting 45,000 vacancies and an overly complicated maze of various “community care” programs.

Senators considered the Better Workforce for Veterans Act, which would provide direct hire authority for positions with a “severe shortage of candidates,” as well as for certain qualified recent graduates and post-secondary students. Congress already gave the secretary direct hire authority for medical facility directors in the disciplinary process reform bill Trump signed last month. The measure would also create a “talent exchange” in which private sector workers would temporarily fill VA slots while department employees would work at the private organization. The swaps would last between three months and four years.

While the bill received bipartisan backing and a warm reception from VA and veteran service organizations, it faced some opposition from employee advocacy groups. The American Federation of Government Employees expressed concern the direct hiring provisions would enable VA to skip over current employees eligible for promotions, while the employee exchange would lead the department down a path toward privatization.

To help with recruiting, the Better Workforce measure would require VA to create more centralized data on hiring effectiveness, a standardized exit survey for departing employees and a database of every vacancy that is critical or difficult to fill. It would launch a “human resources academy” within VA to ensure those employees maintain an adequate understanding of the department’s civil service rules. Another, largely overlapping measure the committee considered would require an annual performance plan for political appointees, including metrics on recruiting, hiring, engaging and training employees. A companion bill to the latter workforce bill cleared the House in March by a 412-0 vote.

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said in submitted testimony the reforms considered by the committee on Tuesday would help institute changes long-needed at VA.

“VA’s leaders need to be empowered to get results and then held accountable for achieving them,” Stier said. The good government leader endorsed the bill, noting the measure could become a blueprint the rest of government could follow.

“Though governmentwide reform is outside of the committee’s jurisdiction, many of the past reforms authored by this committee have become templates for changes proposed elsewhere in government,” Stier said. “I would, therefore, encourage you to think about these ideas both in the context of the Department of Veterans Affairs and in terms of the broader influence they might have on future reforms across the federal enterprise.”

Lawmakers also debated the role the private sector should play in providing health care to veterans. All senators on both sides of the aisle agreed there is a role for the private providers but not to the extent that it replaces the internal Veterans Health Administration medical facility network. VA currently operates seven or eight different community care programs, according to Baligh Yehia, the deputy undersecretary for health for community care, who reiterated VA’s desired reforms first spelled out in testimony VA Secretary David Shulkin delivered in June. Broadly, Yehia said, “Choice 2.0” should empower veterans and their care teams, ensure a “high-performing network,” and guarantee flexibility so the program can adapt to an “evolving health care landscape.”

The original Choice Program signed into law by President Obama in 2014 was originally set to expire in 2014, but President Trump in April eliminated that end date through another measure. After initially telling Congress the program would be funded into fiscal 2018 through existing appropriations, Shulkin has since asked lawmakers for reprogramming authority so it does not run out of money before October. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was quick to note that some groups would like to remove veterans health care from government altogether and vowed to never let that happen. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who put forward one of three different drafts for reforming veterans access to private care, said VA should be held accountable whether the provider is inside or outside of government.

“You can outsource the service but you cannot outsource the responsibility,” Tester said.

In June, Shulkin attempted to assuage any concerns VA was seeking privatization on any scale.

“I am not in support of the goal to shut down the VA system,” Shulkin said, adding, “This will not be an unfettered choice program.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who chairs the committee, also put forward a discussion draft on veterans choice, which would consolidate existing programs under one umbrella while also broadening patients’ overall access to private sector care. Yehia said VA had not yet picked a favorite of the three different draft bills, but that all of them offered steps in the right direction. Veterans groups, such as AMVETS and Disabled American Veterans, expressed opposition to Isakson’s proposals. The former group -- which also opposed Tester’s measure -- expressed concern over granting veterans an “open-ended ability to seek care in the private sector,” while the latter organization said the chairman’s bill would lead to “fragmented and uncoordinated care.”

Despite the lukewarm reception, Isakson concluded the hearing with a note of optimism.

“We’re going to find common ground in the next few months and get a choice bill that works for everybody and ensures the longevity and the future of VA services,” the chairman said.