A step in right direction with VA legislation

Democratic Congressman Joe Tester declared “we got a few bad apples” working at Veterans Affairs clinics. On Tuesday, Congress approved the long-sought legislation to make firing those “bad apples” easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The bill is called the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. It easily cleared the Senate by a 368-55 vote and is expected to be signed soon into law by President Donald Trump.

The measure comes after a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, where some veterans died while waiting months for an appointment. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to fire VA employees “who let our veterans down.”

VA Secretary David Skulkin will now have the authority to reprimand or fire any senior executive in a 21-day internal department grievance process. Rank-and-file employees would have similar job actions appealed to the Merit System Protection Board, with a review process of no more than 180 days.

Both are significantly shorter time frames than existing rules.

The legislation also includes language that would allow VA officials to reject employee bonuses or relocation expenses, or reduce a former employee’s pension, if they are convicted of a felony related to their job. VA leaders said they had no current authority to take those kinds of punitive actions.

It also mandates the VA provides more training on whistleblower rights and be prohibitive from firing employees who have filed complaints through official channels.

The changes drew praise from Skulkin and lawmakers on both sides of the aisles.

“This bipartisan legislation will bring real, long-lasting accountability measures to the Department of Veterans Affairs in a way that will stand up to Constitutional muster,” Rep., D-Minn., 00Tim Waltz said. He is the ranking member on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

“Now we’re getting to the veterans the kind of response and accountability that they earned and deserve,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said.

And the bill turns a campaign promise of Trump’s into law.

Veterans groups also praised the passage of the bill.

“Veterans across the country can look forward to a new culture of accountability and integrity at the VA,” said Dan Caldwell. He is the policy director of Concerned Veterans for America.

So this is good news for a federal program that was failing our military veterans. However, more work is needed. Recent news reports suggest the VA still face widespread challenges in providing timely, quality medical care to veterans.

The labor union that represents VA employees, the American Federation of Government

Employees, argues there is also a manpower issue. It cites a statement by Skulkin who said the VA needs to fill 49,000 vacancies across the U.S.

Nobody believes this law alone will fix the many problems at VA medical facilities. However, it’s putting the VA on a road going in the right direction and hopefully save lives.