A Newly Passed VA Bill Could Mean Big Changes for Federal Employees
On June 13, 2017, the House passed a bipartisan bill to reform the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in a 368 – 55 vote.
This bill, the S.1094 – Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, originated in the Senate, where it was approved on June 6, 2017. It makes the process of hiring and firing federal employees easier, while still providing for proper due process. It also enhances whistleblower protection and training.
Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont), the Democrat chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee; Marco Rubio (R-Fla); and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga) co-authored the bill. It had 31 co-sponsors with wide support among the Senate.
For Congress, the challenge in this reform is “finding the sweet spot between employees’ rights and the VA’s ability to manage,” according to Tester.
Replacing the House’s original draft of a VA Reform bill, which many Democrats thought was unfair for workers, this approved bill is now awaiting a final signature by President Trump to become law.
Congress Addresses Veteran Affairs’ Issues
This bill has been a long time coming.
It’s grounded in the repercussions of a scandal at a Phoenix VA medical center. In 2014, its department employees were accused of creating secret waiting lists of 1,400 to 1,600 veterans in order to mask their extreme waiting times. Though they were required to provide timely treatment – usually 14 to 30 days – waiting times could be over a year.
The delays in service caused many veterans to go untreated until it was too late, and up to 40 died as a result. The employees who were against the secret list were hesitant to speak up in fear of losing their jobs.
The scandal brought up concerns about firing unfit employees and protecting whistleblowers, both issues now addressed in the new bill.
More recently, a decision by the Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit on May 9, 2017 declared that the firing of former Phoenix Veterans Affairs (VA) Director Sharon Helman was unconstitutional. They found that the VA gave too much power to administrative judges, limiting her ability to appeal.
The court struck down part of a 2014 reform bill that expedited the firing process. However, a similar provision is in this new bill, and it is unclear if that will cause problems once it is law.
Changes to the VA Under New Accountability and Protection Act
The House created their own version of this VA Reform bill first, and successfully passed it on March 16, 2017 by a 237 – 178 vote. Their version, H.R.1259 – VA Accountability First Act of 2017, would give VA employees more time to appeal disciplinary actions.
It arrived in the Senate on March 21, 2017. The Senate made revisions, primarily focused on making it more fair for employees, and sent the new bill back to the House, where Congress members overwhelmingly approved it.
The current version now includes:
The bill shortens the firing process if evidence shows the employee engaged in misconduct or performed poorly. The timeline varies based on the employee’s rank.
For senior executives, the VA Secretary must be given a 15-day notice before making a decision in a 21-day internal department grievance process. Employees who are fired or reprimanded may then appeal to the courts, but not to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).
Other employees may appeal to the MSPB after a review process of no more than 180 days
Finally, the bill increases the permitted actions the VA may take against an employee who has been convicted of a felony related to their job. It allows the VA to take away bonuses and relocation expenses, as well as reduce former employee’s pensions.
With about 49,000 job vacancies still at the VA, Congress wanted to make it possible to hire new employees easily.
According to Tester, the bill removes some of the “red tape” that caused long approval wait times. If signed into law, VA secretaries will be able to appoint people for medical center directors and other leadership offices directly.
Finally, the bill ensures whistleblowers are protected and emphasizes the importance of whistleblower rights’ training.
President Trump ordered the creation of a VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection on April 27, 2017. If signed, this bill will put this executive order into law. It also fleshes out details of the new office, including giving the head of the office independent authority and requiring them to submit regular updates to Congress.
With the new bill, supervisors will begin to be evaluated, in part, based on their response to whistleblowers. VA offices will also have to hold yearly department-wide trainings on whistleblower rights.
Passing Congress and Heading to the White House
President Trump is expected to sign this bill next week. On June 6, he tweeted: “Senate passed the VA Accountability Act. The House should get this bill to my desk ASAP! We can’t tolerate substandard care for our vets.”
Some question the bill, wondering why the VA, a single department out of many, needs a law specific to its employees. Others are worried it could unfairly blame employees for systemic failures.
However, with the careful consideration of both expedited processes and appeals, as well as increased protection for whistleblowers, the bill tries to balance the various viewpoints at play.
Senator Marco Rubio praised the efforts of the bill, saying, “We must make real changes that put the well-being of our service members before the best interests of bureaucrats.”
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