In the latest legislative push to refurbish the much-criticized VA health system, Congress last month passed a bill that would make it easier to fire employees for misconduct. The Senate and House passed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, and President Trump was expected to sign the measure into law, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Civil servant unions are not thrilled, saying the measure erodes job protection for employees and makes it more onerous for whistleblowers to come forward.
J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told the Senate in a hearing in May: “This upends nearly 140 years of civil service law, and makes VA employees very close to ‘at will,’ which seems to be the real objective of the drafters of this provision. Although marketed as a bill to make it easier to fire bad employees, the proposals are designed to kill off and bury the apolitical Civil Service. It makes it just as easy to fire a good employee, an innocent employee, as it will be to fire a bad employee.”
The majority of lawmakers (the House passed the bill, 368 to 55) and many veteran advocacy groups disagree, saying the measure makes it easier to cut through bureaucracy to deal with employees guilty of misconduct.
Dan Caldwell, the director of policy for the advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, tells the Los Angeles Times that the bill is a “key reform that needs to be implemented before you can start addressing … anything at all because if you don’t have accountability, then any type of future reforms will be undermined.”
The legislation mandates that a decision on whether to take disciplinary action must be taken within 15 business days. The employee has seven business days to respond to allegations. That’s a huge difference to the current situation, which now takes six months to a year to remove a permanent civil servant.
To address concerns that the legislation would make it easier to punish whistleblowers, the measure creates an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. Whistleblowers were crucial in exposing the wait times vets had to endure to get care—the issue that led to the ongoing scandals about VA care that continue to garner headlines.