Congress Misfires on VA Reform

Categories: VA, The Insider

Two years ago, the VA health care system was struggling to service veterans quickly. One in six medical positions – around 41,000 total – were unfilled. Faced with a rapidly-expanding veteran population, wait times increased, and VA employees blew the whistle hoping to get the staffing their patients deserved.   

Now, instead of thanking those brave working people who put their necks on the line, politicians claiming to “fix the VA” want to start rolling back the rights of those employees who risked so much to expose the waitlists in the first place.  

On September 14, Rep. Jeff Miller’s latest bill to trample VA employee rights, H.R. 5620, passed the House of Representatives. Citing the backlogs and waitlist manipulation at specific VA medical centers, Miller claimed that the frontline workers were responsible and needed to be taken to task.   

Under the current system, VA employees have due process rights to challenge wrongful firing, whistleblower retaliation, and discrimination on the basis of veteran status. But now, Miller’s bill would give managers the ability to fire the working people caring for our veterans without due process.    

In 2014, when whistleblowers spoke up, they did so knowing their job was safe – or at least, safe enough. Because of their due process rights and rights as union members, they could not be fired for speaking up. But that didn’t mean they would not face reprisals. Numerous doctors, nurses, and other staff at VA medical centers who blew the whistle faced intimidation, removal of duties, shifting of schedules, and negative performance evaluations.   

Now, Miller’s new proposal would force them to fear for their jobs too.   

Passed by the House last week, Miller’s bill would reduce response times for notices of proposed removals and appeals of disciplinary decisions to the Merit Systems Protection Board, eliminate MSPB appeal rights if the board is unable to meet the shorter timeframes, and eliminate certain due process rights for employees facing removal based on performance evaluations.   

That’s not going to fix the problem – hiring enough medical providers – and VA employees know it.  

“This legislation is not about improving how we treat and care for our veterans,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “It’s a unprincipled effort to turn honest, hardworking VA employees, and ultimately every federal worker, into an at-will employee who can be fired at any time with little recourse.”   

While Miller touts his bill and ignores the reality of the situation at the VA, a far better reform bill, S. 2921, has the bipartisan support of Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chair, Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and ranking member Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. It stands to reason that there should be common sense reforms to hold the bad actors responsible for problems at the VA accountable, but it can be done without punishing the honest and hard-working VA employees.  

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