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The VA must be held accountable. Here’s what Congress needs to do

The VA must be held accountable. Here’s what Congress needs to do

By Chairman Phil Roe, M.D.

A recent study completed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that, on average, it takes six months to a year to remove a permanent civil servant in the federal government. Oftentimes, it takes even longer.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is not exempt from the red-tape that prevents agency leadership from firing or disciplining employees within their agency.

President Obama’s former VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson testified at a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing on the Choice Program that it was too difficult to fire a substandard VA employee. In fact, President Obama himself said, “if you engage in an unethical practice, if you cover up a serious problem, you should be fired. Period. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”

I’ve said time and time again that the vast majority of the employees at the VA are hard-working and have the best interests of our veterans at heart, but there are still too many bad apples within the department. Our veterans deserve better, and the VA employees who work tirelessly to fulfill their duties deserve better.

In the past several years, VA’s civil service rules have hampered the department’s ability to dismiss an employee who engaged in an armed robbery; to recoup $400,000 in relocation benefits from two senior employees who abused their authority; and hold employees accountable for their failures to manage major construction projects, including the new hospital in Aurora, Colorado, that is now several years and nearly a billion dollars over-budget.

Even worse, the VA said it would have taken up to a year to fire a nurse who assisted in a veteran’s emergency surgery while under the influence of alcohol. The lack of accountability at the VA isn’t just a failure to our heroes; it’s dangerous.

This kind of behavior would never be tolerated in the private-sector, and is even more unacceptable coming from the men and women who are paid by taxpayers to serve our nation’s veterans.

It is past time Congress act in a bipartisan way to make the VA the best agency it can be. That’s why I’ve introduced the VA Accountability First Act, legislation to bring much-needed accountability to the VA.

This important bill, which is being considered by the House this week, would provide Secretary Shulkin the tools he needs to swiftly and effectively discipline employees who fail in their sacred mission to provide world-class healthcare and benefits to the men and women who served.

The VA Accountability First Act, which has strong support from many Veterans Service organizations, would level the playing field at VA and allow for a fair and timely appeal process for all VA employees.

This bill would establish a singular expedited procedure for VA employees to respond and appeal to proposed removals, demotions, and suspensions for misconduct.

The VA Accountability First Act and would bring certainty to the department and VA employees alike by entitling employees to an expedited appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) that would be decided within 45 days.

Currently, it can take up to 264 days for an appeal to move through the process, leaving employees in limbo while their appeals are considered.

I’m proud this bill would also expand and preserve protections for whistleblowers.

Whistleblowers are critical to the process of uncovering and addressing issues within the department, and I will always fight to ensure they are protected under the law. Additionally, this legislation will provide the Secretary with the direct hiring authority he has requested to hire medical center directors in a more expedient manner. Currently, it takes upwards of six months to fill a position, and this important provision will help fill the leadership vacancies across VA.

Finally, this legislation raises the standards expected of VA employees by providing the Secretary with the authority to recoup a bonus provided to an employee who engaged in misconduct or poor performance prior to receiving the bonus if that bonus would not have been paid if their poor performance or misconduct was known. It would also allow the Secretary to recoup any relocation expenses if that employee commits an act of fraud, waste or malfeasance.

Every VA employee I speak with tells me good employees want to work in an environment where they know everyone can be held accountable for their actions.

The VA Accountability First Act doesn’t just build back the trust of America’s veterans; it gives VA employees the trust to know that bad actors within the department will no longer have the power to taint their good name.
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