The head of the Veterans Affairs Department would have much more flexibility to fire corrupt or poor-performing employees under a new bill introduced in the House on Thursday.
The legislation would give the VA secretary “sweeping new authority” to get rid of department employees engaged in misconduct, or who are poor performers, according to a statement from the bill’s sponsor, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. The 2015 VA Accountability Act would make it easier to fire all misbehaving employees, not just top officials. The 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which became law last year, makes it easier to get rid of senior executives at the department engaged in wrongdoing.
Lawmakers and other stakeholders have grown increasingly frustrated that the department has not fired any employees in connection with the data manipulation and excessive wait times for vets that erupted last year at the Phoenix, Ariz., facility. Problems involving data manipulation, mail mismanagement, drug overprescriptions, and retaliation against whistleblowers have come to light since then at several other VA facilities across the country. According to Miller, VA has only attempted to discipline eight people for wait time manipulation.
“From Philadelphia to Reno, Nev., to Nashville, Tenn., to Phoenix, VA’s tradition of transferring problem workers, putting them on paid leave or simply allowing them to go virtually unpunished continues because current civil service rules make it extremely difficult to properly hold employees accountable,” Miller said in a statement. “I know this because high-ranking VA officials – people who work directly for the secretary – have told me so behind closed doors.”
The legislation would allow the secretary to remove any VA employee based on performance or misconduct; the employee could file an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board within seven days of his or her removal. MSPB would have to rule within 45 days of the appeal filing.
The bill also would extend the probationary period for new VA employees from one year to 18 months, and allow the secretary to extend that even further. “When an employee’s probationary period ends, their immediate supervisor would be required to make an affirmative decision that the employee is qualified for their position before full civil service protections are granted,” according to a press release summarizing the bill.
The legislation would include a provision limiting the secretary’s authority to fire or demote an employee who is a whistleblower.
Several veterans’ groups, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Concerned Veterans for America expressed support for the legislation.