Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have voted to give the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs more authority to hold employees accountable for poor performance or misconduct. The bill would also strengthen whistleblower protections and includes restricting and recouping bonus awards, including from those who retaliate against them. An employee who is convicted of a felony in connection with their job duties could have their pension reduced.
The “VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016,” H.R. 5620, passed the House on Wednesday by a vote of 250-171. It will now go to the Senate. The bill was introduced in July 2016 by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL).
President Barack Obama said in March 2015, “It’s important that veterans know that somebody’s got their backs, and that, if there are problems, that we’re not being defensive about it, not hiding it.”
A year later, and still today, veterans are having to wait for medical care and some are dying or committing suicide in the process. Scandalous revelations of extended wait times, improper scheduling practices, scheduling report manipulations, budget mismanagement, insufficient oversight, lack of accountability, and cover-ups, were revealed in 2014 and again in 2015 and 2016. Veterans in the country and in Texas are still victims of these practices.
In May 2014, Breitbart News reported that a whistleblower behind the federal investigation of a Veterans Affairs clinic in Fort Collins said she was put on unpaid leave for two weeks for not “cooking the books” when scheduling the appointments of veterans. The former Navy reservist who was back on active duty said she refused to hide wait times of the appointment dates requested and the actual dates, a process called “Zeroing Out.” She was suspended after she filed an internal grievance about the transfer and scheduling practices. She was offered her pay back if she would no longer publicly talk about the problems at the VA.
Breitbart Texas reported on May 30, 2014, that a VA whistleblower was claiming that the VA hospital system in Texas is an “organized crime syndicate.” It appeared that VA administrators in Texas were attempting to cover-up policies that have allegedly created fake waiting lists to ensure that the administrators receive bonuses.
In June 2014, President Obama accepted the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and named Deputy Secretary Sloan D. Gibson as acting Secretary. As reported by Breitbart Texas, “The rare display of accountability le[ft] veterans and citizens across America wondering what is next for our wounded and otherwise injured veterans who are caught up in the bureaucratic delays and possible criminal behavior of some VA administrators.”
On June 24, 2014, Breitbart News reported that CNN’s Drew Griffin, the reporter who uncovered the VA scandal, interviewed another whistleblower. The scheduling clerk at the Veterans Administration office in Phoenix said the deaths of veterans were still being covered up by changing lists of veterans who have died to make it appear that they were still alive. CNN had reported that more than 1,000 veterans may have died in the last decade because of malpractice or lack of care.
In September 2015, Breitbart News reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report revealing that approximately 307,000 sick veterans died while waiting for care. The report actually found that many of the veterans on the waiting list had been dead for over four years. “The report confirms the worst-case scenarios about the long VA wait times that have made news reports and sparked questions in Congress since last year,” the Breitbart article noted. Reports also revealed that “the [VA] enrollment program did not effectively define, collect, and manage enrollment data.”
The Breitbart News report chronicled that the study “occurred after whistleblowers warned of the utter mismanagement at the Veteran Affairs offices that included incorrectly making unprocessed applications and the deletion of thousands of records over at least the last five years.” The OIG study also revealed that waiting lists included one veteran that had died in 1988 and another had been on the waiting list for fourteen years.
In February of this year, the VA Inspector General found 51 scheduling red flags at 73 other veterans medical facilities, as reported by USA Today. A list of 111 VA facilities were flagged for wait-time investigation.
Breitbart Texas reported in July that a federal investigation found that two supervisors and a director at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston and its associated clinics, were manipulating patient appointment statistics by recording clinic cancellations as patient cancellations. The report of the VA Office of Inspector General claims that the problems at the VA persist “because of a lack of effective training and oversight.”
According to the House Republican Conference, the membership body of all Republican members of the U.S. House, the bill would “also improve accountability provisions from the “Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014” for VA Senior Executive Service (SES) employees, and would authorize the Secretary to reduce the pensions of SES employees who are convicted of a felony that influenced their job. H.R. 5620 would further strengthen accountability at VA by allowing the Secretary to recoup any bonuses or relocation expenses given to VA employees when the Secretary deems it necessary.”
House Republicans say that the legislation would also:
- Authorize the VA Secretary to fire, or demote any VA employee (except SES and political employees) for performance or misconduct. An employee would be allowed advanced written notice of the decision with an opportunity to respond, both of which must be completed within a total of ten calendar days; an expedited appeal to the full Merit Systems Protection Board who must render a decision within 60 days or else the Secretary’s decision is final; and limited judicial review by a Federal Circuit court.
- Authorize the Secretary to reduce a SES’ pension if they are convicted of a felony that influenced their job performance.
- Provide the Secretary with the authority to recoup any bonus or award paid to any VA employee if the Secretary deems it appropriate to do so. Prior to any recoupment, the employee would be entitled to advance notice, an opportunity to respond to the order, and the opportunity for an appeal of the Secretary’s decision before another agency or department within the Federal government. Such appeal would have to be completed within 30 days of filing or the Secretary’s decision is final.
- Provide the Secretary with the authority to recoup any relocation expenses paid to any VA employee if the Secretary determined that the employee committed an act of fraud, waste, or malfeasance. Prior to any recoupment, the employee would be entitled to advance notice, an opportunity to respond to the order, and the opportunity for an appeal of the Secretary’s decision before another agency or department within the Federal government. Such appeal would have to be completed within 30 days of filing or the Secretary’s decision is final.
- Modify the ‘Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014’ for disciplinary actions for SES employees and provides the Secretary with the authority to remove, fire, demote, suspend, reprimand, or admonish an SES employee for misconduct or performance. The employee would be entitled to advanced written notice of the Secretary’s decision and an opportunity to respond, both of which must be completed within a total of 5 calendar days; an expedited appeal to a newly created Senior Executive Disciplinary Appeals Board, who must render a decision within 21 days or the Secretary’s decision is final and the Secretary has the final authority to overrule a decision of the Board; and limited judicial review of the Board’s or Secretary’s decision by a Federal circuit court.
- Enhance protections for whistleblowers by: providing employees an additional method to report whistleblower complaints and provide supervisors with the opportunity to address problems at the lowest levels; holding supervisors accountable for retaliation against employees by mandating suspension, termination, and bonus prohibition and recoupment for supervisors found to have retaliated against employees; and requiring the VA to conduct annual training for employees on handling whistleblower complaints.
- Reform the VA’s appeals process by giving veterans various options to pursue their appeal. Empowering the veteran to choose the best option for his/her appeal means that a veteran may elect for a faster process, in exchange for not submitting new evidence or having a hearing. However, those veterans who do want to submit more evidence or have a hearing may still do so.
- Eliminate all bonuses for VA SES employees for fiscal years 2017-2021.
In a statement obtained by Breitbart Texas, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said, “Under existing law, it’s nearly impossible to replace employees at federal agencies like the VA, no matter how bad their behavior or work product. This bill takes a positive step forward by allowing the VA Secretary more flexibility to remove employees. The VA should not employ individuals who falsify records and ignore the needs of Veterans.”