Veterans

New VA firing rules, health care options moving quickly

A massive veterans reform measure including new employment rules for senior officials and an overhaul of outside care programs could be on the Senate floor early next month, the chair of the chamber's Veterans' Affairs Committee said Tuesday.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said progress on the promised omnibus measure has picked up in recent days, and he is hopeful to have the package before House lawmakers with enough time for final passage before Memorial Day.

While the legislation will include a host of changes requested by VA officials on program updates and improvements, Isakson called new accountability provisions the centerpiece of the effort.

"I'm not someone who likes to fire people, but sometimes you have to," he told VA Secretary Bob McDonald at a hearing Thursday. "I want to give you the ability to hire good people, but I want you also to be able to hold them accountable."

McDonald has requested changing employment rules for a host of department senior executives, allowing more flexible salary options and quicker hiring processes than federal rules allow.

But they would also change disciplinary rules, allowing them to be fired more easily and limit appeals options to the secretary's discretion. Lawmakers have offered support for the idea. Officials from the Senior Executive Association, which represents federal workers across a host of agencies, have voiced strong concerns.

SEA officials released a survey of 236 current and former VA senior executives last week which panned the plans; two-thirds opposed the idea, and more than half thought the plans would scare individuals away from seeking VA jobs.

But McDonald said the changes would "treat health care career executives more like their private-sector counterparts," giving them "accountability policies comparable to those of the physicians and dentists they lead."

Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) speaks to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald during a Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs meeting on Capitol Hill, Jan. 21, 2016. McDonald spoke about modernizing the VA. (Daniel Woolfolk/Staff)
Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) speaks to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald during a Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs meeting on Capitol Hill, Jan. 21, 2016. McDonald spoke about modernizing the VA. (Daniel Woolfolk/Staff)

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

Photo Credit: Daniel Woolfolk/Staff

The proposed move comes after a series of high-profile failures by the department to discipline executives. Lawmakers have blamed a culture of corruption within the federal worker ranks for the problems, while workers' advocates have blamed past congressional efforts at changing disciplinary laws for the difficulties.

Members of Congress have also criticized VA for mistakes in standing up the new Choice Card program, designed to expand outside care options for veterans who face long wait times or long travels to see VA physicians.

McDonald has asked for consolidation of a host of outside care programs, including the Choice Card efforts, to better coordinate external care for veterans with internal programs. Isakson hinted that lawmakers are supportive of that change.

The issues of accountability and outside care were at the heart of the last major veterans reform measure, passed in summer 2014 at the height of the department's patient wait time scandal. It was signed into law just days after McDonald was confirmed as head of the department.

That measure has met mixed success, with billions set aside for hiring physicians and leases but uneven progress on department firings and coordination with private physicians.

House officials have passed a series of more minor department reforms in recent months, and have said they hope to work with the Senate on including them in the larger package.

Isakson's counterpart — House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. — last week announced his decision not to run for re-election this fall, but getting the omnibus through his chamber is one of his remaining congressional goals.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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