HOUSE VOTES FASTER FIRINGS AT VA, APPEAL PROCESS REFORMS
The House voted 310-116 Wednesday to arm the Department of Veterans Affairs, exclusively among federal departments, with tougher employee “accountability” tools to punish misconduct and better protect whistleblowers.
It’s the latest political fallout from the patient wait time scandal of 2014 and multiple smaller investigations into misbehaving VA supervisors and staff that have become the primary focus of the House Veterans Affairs Committee under chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) who is to retire January.
The VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 (HR 5620), introduced by Miller in July, would provide new authorities for VA to withhold financial incentives or to demote or fire employees faster than current federal employee protection law allows.
The same bill would reform the VA claims appeal process so that veterans who file challenges to benefit claim decisions don’t have to wait years, as they do now, to get final determinations.
The Obama administration praised the bill’s provisions to restructure the claims appeals process, saying it has been failing veterans and taxpayers for years.
“Today, more than 450,000 appeals are pending at some point in the process, with veterans waiting an average of at least 3 years for a decision,” explained the Office of Management and Budget in a statement on HR 5620.
In the same document, however, OMB joined federal employee unions in complaining that the toughened “accountability” tools in the bill go too far and would unfairly weaken due process protections for the 330,000 federal workers serving veterans, a third of them being veterans themselves.
Essential rights and protections “available to the vast majority of other employees across the government” would be diminished at VA, undermining its need to attract and keep quality employees and thus hindering the department’s ability to serve veterans, OMB warned.
Rep. Mark Takano (Calif.), the VA committee’s ranking Democrat, led an unsuccessful floor fight to soften the misconduct provisions, as the Republican majority defeated every substantive amendment. In the end, with Miller citing support from 18 prominent veteran groups, 69 Democrats joined the united Republican front to pass the bill convincingly.
It would shorten the process to fire, demote or hear the appeal of rank-and-file VA employees, from an average of more than a year to no more than 77 days. It also would end involvement of the Merit Systems Protection Board in such actions for VA senior executives; give the VA secretary authority to recoup bonuses and relocation expenses from employees who misbehave, or to reduce pensions of senior executives convicted of felonies that influenced their performance reports.
Additionally whistleblowers would get new protections from reprisals and the bill would mandate strict accountability to supervisors or colleagues who would reprise against them, the VA committee explained.
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