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Lawmakers Target Government’s Bad Apples, Obama Praises Its Good Eggs, and More

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

Lawmakers (and the media) have been overly fond of the phrase “bad apples” when describing the culprits behind serious problems that continue to surface at the Veterans Affairs Department.

There have been several bills introduced in this Congress aimed at rooting out those bad apples and enforcing accountability at the department. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has introduced legislation (S. 1117) that would give the VA secretary more authority to punish and fire department doctors for poor performance or misconduct. This latest VA bill aimed at getting rid of undesirable employees builds on the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which makes it easier to fire misbehaving senior executives at the department.

“I’m introducing a bill to expand the ability of the VA to discipline or, if necessary, fire health care professionals who cannot do their jobs properly,” Johnson said in a statement emphasizing the need to “root out” bad apples. “The vast majority of the men and women caring for veterans in our VA facilities are dedicated to providing the best level of care. It is a mark of respect for their professionalism that we enable VA management to weed out those who cannot match that standard.” Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., has introduced a companion bill in the House.

Johnson’s bite at the bad apples came right after Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller’s latest bill to loosen protections for VA employees who can’t, or won’t, do their jobs. The 2015 VA Accountability Act would make it easier to fire all misbehaving employees, not just top officials. Miller is also sponsoring a bill that would come down harder on VA employees who retaliate against department whistleblowers.

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., health care 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.

That frustration is making itself known legislatively, not only in stand-alone bills to fire bad employees, but also in efforts targeting compensation. Last Thursday, the House passed the fiscal 2016 Military Construction-VA bill which included an amendment prohibiting VA senior executives from receiving bonuses in fiscal 2016. Lawmakers also approved an amendment to the spending bill that would ban performance awards for employees in VA’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management for fiscal 2016.

Another amendment included in the House’s fiscal 2016 Mil Con-VA bill would prohibit funding for VA’s Appraised Value Offer program, which the department uses as an incentive to attract highly-qualified candidates for hard-to-fill jobs. The AVO program provides relocation services to employees to encourage them to move to locations that require specialized skills. The program allows a government contractor to buy the employee’s home if it doesn’t sell in 60 days.

Another hot issue at the VA is the status of the disability claims backlog. A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday released their own report on the department’s progress clearing up the backlog and called for a Government Accountability Office investigation into the issue. The report asks GAO to “analyze the VA’s 56 regional offices in order to identify ways to achieve more consistent performance in veterans’ disability claims processing. Specifically, the GAO will identify the factors, including management practices, which appear to distinguish the higher performing regional offices from other regional offices.”

The lawmakers said claims processing employees need resources and training to do that job. As of May 2, the disability compensation and pension claims backlog was at 161,519 claims, down from 611,073 claims in March 2013. Claims in the backlog have been pending for more than 125 days. The growing number of claims filed by veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan has put pressure on a department already facing numerous challenges. But the pressure to reduce the backlog may have resulted in employees at certain facilities cutting corners because they feared losing their jobs, according to witnesses at a recent congressional hearing which looked at mismanagement at VA’s Philadelphia and Oakland facilities.

Moving on from bad apples to good eggs, President Obama this week praised federal employees as part of Public Service Recognition Week. “Despite tough circumstances -- including pay freezes, budget cuts, sequestration and a political climate that too often does not sufficiently value their work -- these exceptional leaders continue to make real the fundamental truth that people who love their country can change it,” Obama said.

Today’s civil servants, the president said, “are scientists and teachers, social workers and first responders -- they are the leaders of today's progress and the innovators of tomorrow's breakthroughs. With determination and resolve, they defend our country overseas and work to widen the circle of opportunity and prosperity here at home.”

(Image via  / Shutterstock.com)

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