VA accountability bill, temporary Choice extension clear first congressional hurdles

If the 114th Congress was about dissecting the Veterans Affairs Department’s challenges, then the 115th Congress will act quickly to solve them, leadership on the House Veterans Affairs Committee said.

The committee easily approved two significant pieces of legislation at a March 8 markup: one that gives the VA secretary the authority to fire, demote or suspend employees for misconduct or poor performance more quickly, and another that temporarily reauthorizes the Veterans Choice Program past its upcoming Aug. 7 sunset date.

The VA Accountability First Act, which committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) introduced last week, earned praise from Secretary David Shulkin himself.

“We’re very fortunate that we have such a great workforce, but we’ve all seen examples where there are people who shouldn’t be working in VA, and it’s been too hard to get them to leave,” Shulkin told the House committee at a hearing Tuesday evening, his first as secretary. “Your accountability bill is an important step forward in that.”

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The legislation would give the VA secretary the authority to fire, demote or suspend the department’s employees for misconduct or poor performance. It requires the department to notify employees of a disciplinary action 10 days in advance. The secretary has another five days to complete the decision.

“Some have said that this bill is nothing but an attack on workers’ rights,” Roe said. “This simply is not true. I agree with everyone here that 99 percent of  VA’s employees are hardworking public servants who are dedicated to providing quality health care and benefits for veterans.”

The bill also eliminates the grievance process a VA employee typically has with his or her union under collective bargaining contracts.

“If we don’t eliminate this lengthy process for disputing these disciplinary actions through a union grievance process or arbitration process, then we’d be creating a giant loophole,” Roe said.

Democrats, including committee Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-Minn.), introduced two separate amendments. Walz said the focus should be on senior executives and managers, not all VA employees.

“Those folks that we subpoenaed and sat there, and then, because we didn’t do it correctly, went to court and got their jobs back, it galls me every day that I have to work with them and know that they should have been gone,” he said. “But because we didn’t put the right things in place, senior managers who are not union members are now dictating to union members under them who are doing their job. That’s the part that most challenges me.”

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Walz’s amendment would have allowed the current grievance processes to remain intact. It borrowed accountability language from the Veterans First Act, which the Senate VA Committee introduced last year but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

“If the provisions in this amendment are supported by AFGE, then these are not the kind of changes taxpayers or a growing number of veterans organizations want us to make,” Roe said.

“I don’t think the VA is firing too many people,” he added.

Democrats pushed the committee to revisit the issue and debate other ways to address a framework for senior executive accountability. But the committee struck down two separate amendments from Walz.

Veterans Choice

The committee also passed a bill that simply allows the department to continue the Veterans Choice Program past its original Aug. 7 sunset date. It lets VA continue to use the remaining appropriations — about $1 billion — to spend on care in the community.

“By removing the sunset date we are not endorsing the program in its current state but we are ensuring that emergency funds that Congress made available for critical veterans care are used for that purpose until they are expended,” Roe said.

Congress authorized the program in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which forced the department to stand up the system in 90 days. Over the past three years, the program went through four legislative changes and more than 70 contract modifications.

It’s a priority for both Congress and the department, which said it first hopes to extend the Choice Program and then redesign and simplify it.

“If we don’t do this extension, this is going to be a disaster for American veterans,” Shulkin said. “We’re going to see the same situation that we saw in April 2014.”

Without an immediate extension, VA will see “a large number of veterans” who won’t have the same access to care they once had by April or May as funding begins to dry up.

“Episodes of care that we’re used to, like hip replacements and other things, are generally three-to-four months,” he said. “We think the time is now that we need to act.”

Members of the committee — as well as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, (R-Ariz.) who spoke of the progress and challenges he’s seen under the Choice Program — insisted they have no intentions to privatize the department.

“Let me be clear. No one is advocating that we privatize the VA. Many veterans are satisfied with the VA,” McCain said.

Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced a companion bill to extend the VA Choice Program deadline.

Once Congress clears an extension, Shulkin said he’d like to work with Congress on a redesign that would let the department more easily administer Choice.

“We want to come back and we want to work with you on a redesigned Choice 2.0,” Shulkin said. “We’re going to have a better name for that too. We really want to get that done with you by September.”

The House committee is drafting new VA health care legislation, Roe said. He plans to introduce a bill in the coming weeks, with the goal of having the President sign it by the end of the year.

Shulkin also had other news for the committee.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that VA building its own software products and doing its own software development inside is not a good way to pursue this,” Shulkin said to some sighs of relief from committee members. “We need to move toward commercially-tested products.”

Shulkin said the department would soon begin work to move toward commercial software. Congress has long been frustrated by the delays and VA’s struggles to develop in-house, interoperable electronic health record management systems and scheduling systems.

It’s also a frustration for the Government Accountability Office, which included VA health care and IT systems for the second time on its High-Risk List in 2017.

Shulkin said he and his team met with Comptroller General Gene Dodaro to discuss GAO’s recommendations.