Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to correct information about the new waiver process for employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs who wish to have dealings with for-profit schools.
Traditionally, employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs haven’t been allowed to moonlight at for-profit schools or receive gifts, services or other financial benefits from such institutions, which enroll tens of thousands of veterans using the GI Bill.
But the department has started making it easier for most employees to do so ― a new policy that has several military and veteran advocacy organizations crying foul.
The policy, which went into effect last month and is currently being rolled out, lays out a process for VA workers to request waivers. These will be reviewed on an individual basis, officials said.
The VA’s new policy requires employees to apply for individual waivers and offers a presumption in favor of employees whose work does not involve key duties related to VA education benefits, they said. Employees who do education-related work at the department may also request waivers, but they would need special permission from VA leadership.
“They get a more in-depth review because they are more at risk for a conflict of interest violation,” an official said, though any employee can be denied a waiver for ethics concerns.
Leaders and ethics experts from more than 40 organizations wrote in a letter to VA, dated today, that the plan “falls short of VA’s statutory responsibility to protect veterans.” There have been well-documented instances of for-profit schools “targeting veterans with deceptive and aggressive recruiting,” they said, and making it easier for employees to associate with these schools could put veterans at risk of being manipulated, including by VA medical-center employees affiliated with for-profit institutions. Though the letter characterizes the new process as “automatic” approval for most employees, VA officials say that’s not the case.
A spokesman said prior to this, there was no formal waiver process for VA employees who wished to have dealings with for-profit schools.
The new VA policy follows a September plan by former VA Sec. David Shulkin to grant blanket waivers for VA employees with ties to for-profit institutions a plan that was later rescinded after significant pushback.
That initial proposal came after a VA Inspector General report found that two employees had conflicts of interest when they taught classes at for-profit schools. The report recommended that VA either enforce its ethics law as written ― meaning fire employees involved with for-profits ― or institute a waiver. If VA enforced the law as written, “the department could lose thousands of employees and our ability to serve veterans would be seriously impeded,” VA spokesman Curt Cashour told Military Times last fall.
At the time, he said requiring individual waivers “would be a tremendous waste of government resources” because the duties of the vast majority of the department’s employees have no impact on for-profit schools. But in light of pushback to Shulkin’s blanket-waiver plan, the department has rolled out this new approach, he said more recently.
Military Times contributor and former reporter Natalie Gross hosts the Spouse Angle podcast. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.