The U.S. Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill co-authored by Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson that aims to make it easier for leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire problematic employees.
The bipartisan legislation would expedite the process for VA officials to remove and replace bad workers, particularly top executives. It would also create a way to strip employees of bonuses and other benefits if they’re later convicted of a work-related felony.
The legislation is seen by its backers as a compromise after years of back-and-forth over how to address systematic problems at the department while also incorporating protections for federal workers.
It’s been more than three years since headlines emerged about fatally long wait times at Phoenix’ VA facility and an attempt by some of the medical center’s employees to cover up the delays.
“We are reaching into every corner of the problems that have existed at the VA,” said Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate’s VA committee, in a speech on the Senate floor. “We are making sure that we’re making the corrections necessary to ensure the VA is an accountable organization.”
Many veterans groups favor the plan, as does VA Secretary David Shulkin, who told reporters last week that the department’s accountability processes “are clearly broken.”
“We have to wait more than a month to fire a psychiatrist, who was caught on camera watching pornography, using his iPad, while seeing a veteran,” Shulkin said.
“Just last week, we were forced to take back an employee after they were convicted … three times for DUI and had served a 60-day jail sentence,” he added.
President Donald Trump created a new accountability office at the department in April, but the Senate bill would put more power in Shulkin’s hands by lowering the burden of proof needed to dismiss VA employees.
The largest union of federal workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, is against the legislation. It warned that the measure could lead to the mass firing of caregivers.
“This legislation is the antithesis of accountability because it would allow corrupt or incompetent managers to get away with firing anyone who challenges them,” said J. David Cox Sr., the union’s president. “Real accountability would strengthen, not weaken, protections for the rank-and-file employees who are subjected to mismanagement, abuse, and political corruption.”
A federal Office of Special Counsel report last year said the Atlanta VA Medical Center retaliated against public affairs officer Greg Kendall after he raised concerns about a misuse of tax dollars by the hospital’s leadership.
The Senate bill includes a 180-day appeal process for VA employees should they be accused of malfeasance. That’s far more generous than the 45-day period first proposed by the U.S. House. The House version passed the chamber along more partisan lines in March.
It’s unclear which version of the VA legislation will move forward.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.