FILE-- This April 28, 2014 file photo shows the Phoenix VA Health Care Center in Phoenix. Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, is suing the Department of Veterans Affairs to win her old job back. Helman argues in court papers that a key portion of a 2014 law passed in response to the wait-time scandal is unconstitutional and denies her right to appeal her firing. Attorney General Loretta Lynch says in a letter to Congress that the Justice Department has decided not to contest that element of Helmans challenge, essentially agreeing with her legal position. Lynch says Justice will continue fighting against Helman's reinstatement. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
The vast majority of Americans value their jobs and understand they are accountable for their work. They know that if they perform poorly, there will be consequences, and if they engage in illegal behavior, they will likely be fired immediately.
Things are much different if you work for the federal government, especially at the Department of Veterans Affairs. There, it’s virtually impossible to dismiss bad employees, no matter what they do — even committing armed robbery, watching pornography on the job, or stealing prescription drugs.
Fixing the problems at the VA and improving care for our military men and women are top priorities for VA Secretary David Shulkin and the Trump Administration. But their efforts to make real changes have been hamstrung by outdated, bureaucratic rules that put the best interests of bad employees before the well-being of our service members.
After terrible management and secret waitlists were exposed at VA centers nationwide in 2013 and 2014, we worked with our colleagues in Congress to pass a law making it easier for the VA secretary to fire senior officials who failed to do their jobs. It was a good step toward reform, but unfortunately, our efforts to ensure accountability were watered down to placate government unions and further weakened by court rulings. Unions have rigged the system, and as a consequence, incompetence and corruption are still prevalent at the VA and few bad employees have been fired.
Of course, most VA employees are dedicated and competent professionals who work hard to do their jobs correctly. Many served in the military themselves. They are passionate about helping our nation’s veterans receive the quality health care they deserve in a timely and efficient manner. The fact is, however, that the state of the VA system is unacceptable. There is still a mountain of backlogged disability claims, numerous construction projects are over budget and behind schedule, and it takes far too long for many veterans to see a doctor. The VA is still in need of real reforms and accountability.
Current law, civil service rules, and unions are standing in the way. Over and over, we’ve seen the VA attempt to take disciplinary action against an employee, only to see the appeals process prove so complex, lengthy and lenient that accountability was virtually impossible to achieve.
This is why we worked with Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) to put together a bipartisan solution to address some of these issues plaguing the VA. The legislation we are introducing today, the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, incorporated input from several Veteran Service Organizations and would provide the VA secretary with the ability to remove any VA employee for poor performance or misconduct under an expedited appeals process. It improves on the law enacted in 2014 by expanding the VA secretary’s authority to dismiss not just senior managers, but also lower level staff who do not do their jobs.
These reforms will help ensure our veterans come first, and restore common sense in the workplace. If an employee is found to have performed poorly or engaged in misconduct prior to receiving a bonus, why should they be allowed to keep the money? If an employee is convicted of a felony that influenced their job performance, why should they be allowed to keep their full, taxpayer-funded pension? Our bill would ensure the VA secretary has the ability to manage these situations like any other employer in America would.
A Government Accountability Office report determined it takes an average of six months to a year for a federal employee to be fired. Our bill would significantly shrink this time frame while still providing appropriate civil service protections and due process rights.
Of the thousands of whistleblower complaints received by the federal government’s Office of Special Counsel every year, more than a third come from VA employees. These whistleblowers provide an invaluable service to American taxpayers and policy makers, and they should be protected. Our bill would establish an entirely new avenue for employees to expose major problems at the VA without having to fear retaliation from bureaucrats who would rather sweep wrongdoing under the rug.
It has long been recognized within the veterans’ community that many of the VA’s challenges stem from a dysfunctional culture within the department. With Secretary Shulkin and President Trump, we now have leaders in place who are willing to shake up the VA, institute meaningful reforms, and ignore the special interests. If we keep the status quo, more veterans will receive less than acceptable care, or no care at all. We cannot fail our nation’s heroes by missing this opportunity to enact meaningful accountability reforms. We welcome the support of our colleagues in Congress who are committed to creating a VA that finally puts our veterans first.
By U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN).