President Donald Trump signed a bill into law Friday that would expedite the process for top officials to fire problematic employees at the long-troubled U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The aim of the accountability legislation is to make it easier to root out the bad apples who have helped contribute to the cascade of scandals at the VA, harming the care delivered to the nation’s roughly 21 million veterans.
“Our wounded warriors have given everything they have to this nation,” Trump said at a bill signing ceremony in the White House East Room, “and we owe them everything we have in return.”
The measure would accelerate the process for removing bad workers, particularly top executives, by lowering the burden of proof for their removal. It would also shorten the appeals process for VA employees should they be accused of malfeasance to 180 days.
It was designed as a response to a series of scandals at the government’s second-largest agency, including a 2014 incident where VA employees created secret lists to cover up long wait times for appointments. Critics said veterans have died waiting for care and that few bad workers have been fired for misconduct.
“Outdated laws kept the government from holding those who failed our veterans accountable,” Trump said. “Today, we are finally changing those laws — wasn’t easy, but we did have some fantastic help — to make sure that the scandal of what we suffered so recently never, ever happens again, and that our veterans can get the care they so richly deserve.”
Many of the country’s major veterans groups are supportive of the plan, which is seen as a legislative compromise after years of debate over how to address systemic problems at the department while also incorporating protections for federal workers.
Trump signed the measure before a crowd that included veterans, members of Congress and other stakeholders. He was also flanked by VA Secretary David Shulkin, with whom Trump joked that the program be properly implemented. “Better be, David, or…” Trump then formed a pistol with his hand, aimed it at Shulkin and mouthed his reality TV catchphrase “you’re fired.”
The bipartisan legislation, which has been in the works for several years, sailed through both chambers of Congress after it was introduced six weeks ago — breakneck speed for Capitol Hill. It was unanimously agreed to in the Senate and cleared the House by a margin of 368-55.
The largest union of federal workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, opposed the bill, saying it could lead to mass firings.
“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.”
The measure was co-authored by Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a three-term Republican who leads the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Isakson was not at the White House on Friday due to a scheduling conflict, but he later cheered the move as “yet another positive step forward for our veterans.”
“We owe our veterans the best possible care and support that they have earned,” Isakson said in a statement. “By helping to instill a culture of accountability at the VA, we can see to it that we deliver on that promise.”
The Atlanta VA has not been without a scandal of its own. A federal Office of Special Counsel report last year said the city’s 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.
Codified in the legislation is the new accountability office Trump created at the VA this spring. The commander in chief made protecting veterans a core campaign promise and has since moved to integrate the VA and Pentagon’s electronic health record system and create a new complaint hotline for veterans.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
More about U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s accountability bill for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can be found at http://www.myAJC.com/politics.