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New bill would make it easier to fire senior VA employees

But Shinseki, VA officials say that current punitive tools are fine

Feb. 14, 2014 - 05:23PM   |  
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is one of two lawmakers to introduce legislation that would give the VA secretary 'complete authority' over senior executive service officials in the department, including the ability to demote or fire them. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
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Two Florida Republicans want to make it easier to fire senior Veterans Affairs Department employees for serious mistakes,but VA officials say what the plan will really do is scare away top talent.

Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, and Sen. Marco Rubio introduced legislation in their respective chambers this week that would give the secretary of Veterans Affairs “complete authority” over senior executive service officials in the department, including the ability to demote or fire them.

The move would affect only about 450 of VA’s 300,000-plus employees, but both lawmakers argue it’s a critical change to promote accountability throughout the agency.

That’s been a theme in recent months among Republican lawmakers who have criticized VA leadership for failing to punish mid-level workers and senior executives for the disability claims backlog, poor care at medical centers, and a host of other headaches.

In particular, Miller and Rubio have focused on 31 preventable deaths of veterans in at least five different VA medical centers as a failure of leadership. No administrators have been fired in connection with the incidents, although several have retired.

Last spring, Miller said he believed existing employment rules were sufficient for VA to fire subpar workers. But this week, he cited VA’s “well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for mistakes” as the impetus for the new bill.

His office touted support from veterans’ groups for the idea.

John Mitchell Jr., national commander of AMVETS, said in a statement that “the only way to break the cycle of ineptitude at VA and restore our veterans’ faith in the system is to eradicate problems at the root: the senior executive level.”

Members of the American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Concerned Veterans of America voiced similar support.

But VA officials, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, have pushed back against the idea of firing employees to improve department performance, saying they’re working to solve problems without vilifying VA staff.

In a letter to Miller late last month, Shinseki said he believes the current punitive tools are sufficient to respond to problem employees.

In a statement this week, VA officials did not comment directly on the legislation, but said: “VA must remain competitive to recruit and retain the best people in order to continue our progress. Changes that would single out VA employees for punishment by removing existing federal civil service rules not only put VA at a competitive disadvantage, but can ultimately harm VA’s ability to best serve veterans.”

Officials also disputed the idea that the department is rife with problems, saying that problems noted by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee are serious but not systemic.

“When an incident occurs in our system, we aggressively identify, correct and work to prevent additional risks,” the statement said. “We conduct a thorough review to understand what happened, prevent similar incidents in the future, hold those responsible accountable consistent with due process under the law, and share lessons learned across VA’s system.”

The legislation faces an uncertain future. House Republicans have offered similar measures in the past — including a recent plan to limit VA employee bonuses — but those ideas have stalled in the Senate.

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, senior Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he believes “senior leaders need to be held accountable” for problems in VA, but added that “current senior executive service performance management statutes and guidelines provide clear authorities to do just that.”

Michaud said VA simply needs to use those tools more aggressively.

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