Congress

Senate VA bill looks to change agency culture, accelerate termination for cause

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.)

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Iskason (R-Ga.) wants to make it easier to fire VA employees at all levels.

Under a new bill, employee termination at the Department of Veterans Affairs would be subject to fewer procedural checks, while agency whistleblowers would gain new protections. It's part of an effort by Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to change the culture at the veteran's agency in the wake of multiple scandals.

The Veterans First Act, released on April 28 by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, also includes provisions for veterans to receive home care when needed, as well as an expansion of mental health programs. The bill also looks to roll back the disability claims backlog.

"The numerous scandals at the VA and the outrageous examples of employee mismanagement and misconduct have got to stop," Isakson said in a statement. "Our veterans deserve much better than this. Our bill will begin to change the culture of corruption at the VA by giving the VA the tools it needs to hold bad actors accountable."

The proposed changes to the workforce protections are dramatic.

The bill takes the Merit Systems Protection Board out of the loop when it comes to terminating Senior Executive Service members. Fired SESers would have recourse to an appeal with the department's secretary. Executives who are removed for misconduct or who are convicted of felonies related to their government service would see their pensions slashed. The bill also sets up annual performance plans for political appointees and managers, and includes identifying poor performance as a criterion in those plans.

Additionally, the bill grants new authority to the VA secretary to remove employees for misconduct or poor performance at all levels. It limits the amount of administrative leave time employees may be given while they are under investigation.

While VA Secretary Robert McDonald is looking for greater flexibility in hiring and disciplinary matters for top executives, in an April 7 letter to Isakson, he wrote that he is "deeply concerned with discussions of eliminating protections of General Schedule employees, which would undermine the ability for VA's dedicated civil servants to serve our Veterans."

While a VA statement released in response to the Veterans First Act found "much to support in the bill," the agency is also looking for changes to the "outdated and inefficient appeals process" and a "comprehensive approach for consolidation of community care," as well as other matters. The statement was mum on the question of the expedited termination and whistleblower protection pieces of the bill.

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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