The Veterans Affairs Department is pushing back against a legislative proposal to hold VA senior executives accountable by capping the number of top managers eligible for the highest performance ratings and cutting retirement pay for officials convicted of felonies related to their jobs.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., also seeks to protect whistleblowers and reduce cronyism by requiring that Senior Executive Service managers be reassigned to different locations every five years.
Moran says the bill, S 290, is needed because the VA is "still not doing enough to hold those responsible accountable for their corrupt behavior," according to a statement released by the senator's office.
But Thomas Lynch, the VA assistant deputy undersecretary for health clinical operations, told Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee members on Wednesday that a bill would hamper the VA's ability to attract quality leaders.
"VA already is challenged to recruit and retain highly qualified senior executives, in that many take a pay cut to join or stay at VA," Lynch said. "This bill as currently drafted would compound the challenges facing VA."
The chorus has grown in Congress as administrative investigations into employee wrongdoing in high profile scandals — manipulated appointment scheduling, prolonged wait times for medical care, prescription mismanagement and $1 billion in construction cost overruns at a Denver medical facility — have dragged on, allowing executives responsible for the problems to retire from their posts without facing disciplinary action or collect salaries as they wait for results.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has sponsored a bill designed to improve accountability at VA that would allow for suspension and removal of VA employees for performance and misconduct, as well as further measures.
On Wednesday, Lynch said Blumenthal's bill, S 1856, is "less onerous" than others, like Moran's. But he added that the VA still has "legal and policy concerns" with the proposal.
"My position is that I am concerned with some of the accountability that is imposed, and I think it might deter some individuals, some good individuals, from coming to work at the VA," Lynch said.
But Blumenthal said he believes employees would welcome the higher standards.
"There's no question in the wake of the debacle we saw in Phoenix and elsewhere that there is a need for accountability in the department," Blumenthal said.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.