New bill would give VA expanded authority to fire employees

The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee is looking to give leaders at VA new authority to fire employees across the organization.

Phil Roe
 

Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is looking to give the VA more authority to fire and discipline employees.

Lawmakers are looking once again to strengthen the hand of the secretary of Veterans Affairs when it comes to firing authority. A new bill from Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would make it easier to fire or suspend VA employees at all levels.

The VA Accountability First Act of 2017 gives VA leadership new authority for expedited removals of civil servants and member of the Senior Executive Service for poor performance or misconduct. It also puts time limits on the ability on fired employees to appeal terminations to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The VA secretary got similar authority in 2014 under the Veterans Choice Act. However, that law, which was aimed at the SES, sharply curtailed appeals to federal courts, giving final firing authority to an administrative judge. The Justice Department under Attorney General Loretta Lynch declined to defend that provision in the case of Sharon Helman, who was fired as director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System in the wake of the scheduling scandal there.

Roe's bill provides for appeals from an MSPB judge to the full board and to a U.S. appeals court. However, it also limits the ability of union employees to file grievances when they are subject to suspension, demotion or termination.

"What we haven't seen before that appears here is a specific attempt to eliminate our rights, the grievance procedure rights of every employee," said Marilyn Park, legislative director at the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 260,000 VA workers. "Their agenda here is basically to go after the unions -- that's what a lot of this bill is about," she told FCW.

The bill also gives the VA secretary the authority to dock the pension and benefits of retirees who were convicted of felonies that occurred during their time at the agency, and the authority to recoup performance and relocation bonuses and awards that are later deemed to be undeserved.

"I've said time and time again that the vast majority of the employees at the VA are hardworking and have the best interests of our veterans at heart, but there are still too many bad apples within the department," Roe said in a statement announcing the bill. "Our veterans deserve better, and the VA employees who fulfill their duties deserve better."

VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a Feb. 28 speech at an America Legion gathering that passing accountability legislation was a top priority for the agency. Shulkin is also looking to extend and improve the Veterans Choice Act, improve coordination with the Department of Defense and make strides in the interoperability of its technology with commercial electronic health records, and modernize its systems.

Overall, Shulkin said the problems at VA had been identified, and it was time to focus on execution. "We don't need any more studies," he said to applause. He also offered a glimpse into the possibility of VA moving off of its homegrown electronic health records system Vista and into a commercial system.

"We have been a leader [in electronic health records], but these systems desperately need modernization and we're going to take those steps too this year," Shulkin said.

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