Good news, Alabama vets: Bill making it easier to fire bad VA employees passes House
WASHINGTON — The United States House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill that would make it easier to fire poor performing VA employees and also increased protections for whistleblowers who expose corruption and maleficence in the system.
The VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act, would allow the Secretary of Veterans Affairs more flexibility to fire, demote or otherwise punish mid-to-lower level employees for misconduct or poor performance. Currently, stricter accountability measures only apply to senior managers and not rank-and-file employees.
U.S. Representative Martha Roby (R-Ala.), who co-sponsored the bill, said the legislation will improve care for veterans.
“The Central Alabama VA (CAVHCS) was home to some of the worst abuses nationwide,” she said. “Because of the corruption and misconduct we exposed, the director became the first senior manager fired for cause under the new VA accountability law. That was certainly needed, but it didn’t go far enough.”
In 2014, a federal audit included CAVHCS among 84 VA facilities nationwide cited for unethical practices.
According to Department of Veterans Affairs data obtained by USA Today through a Freedom of Information Act request, CAVHCS had the eighth longest average wait time of the entire VA system. Veterans had to wait an average of 51.5 days for an appointment at VA hospitals in Montgomery. The national average was 27.4.
To make matters worse, CAVHCS employees had created an elaborate scheme to hide the fact that they were not delivering timely care to their patients.
The director of the facility originally told Rep. Roby that he had fired the offending employees. Yellowhammer learned two days later that he had, in fact, not fired the employees, but instead had fired the whistleblowers who reported the wrongdoing.
Other scandals erupted as well, including revelations that a CAVHCS employee had taken a recovering vet to a crack house in Tuskegee to buy illegal drugs and solicit a prostitute.
“I’ve said all along that the blame for what happened does not rest with one person alone,” Roby said Wednesday. “There has been a culture of complacency at the VA throughout the ranks because mid-to-lower level employees know they can almost never be fired. This reform bill changes that by finally giving the VA Secretary the authority to swiftly fire, demote or otherwise punish employees for poor performance or misconduct.”
Roby’s efforts led to the Central Alabama VA director being the first senior manager in the country fired under the reform law enacted in 2014. However, that law only allowed the Secretary to deal with senior leaders, not mid-to-lower level employees. The bill passed this week would expand those measures down the ranks to ensure all employees can be held accountable for misconduct or poor performance in the treatment of veterans.
Roby also lauded the whistleblower protections contained in the bill, calling the treatment of her sources “a disgrace.”
“The bill also enhances protections for whistleblowers, and I cannot emphasize enough how important that is. If it weren’t for the brave whistleblowers who told me the truth, who knows if we’d have ever gotten to the bottom of the problems in Central Alabama. And, the way they were treated was a disgrace. There need to be real consequences for intimidating or retaliating against whistleblowers, and this bill delivers just that.”
Roby’s office released the following summary of the new bill, which will now move to the Senate for consideration:
• Authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire, or demote any VA employee for performance or misconduct.
• Employees would be afforded due process, including an expedited appeal to the Merit Systems Protections Board;
• Authorizes the Secretary to reduce a senior manager’s pension if they are convicted of a felony related to their job.
• Enhances protections for whistleblowers by providing additional reporting mechanisms and mandating that any supervisor found to have retaliated against a whistleblower be suspended or terminated, with the possibility of bonus recoupment.
• Improves the VA’s appeals process by giving veterans more options and better clarity for pursuing an appeal.
More information about the bill is available on the House Veterans Affairs Committee website.