An opportunity for real civil service reform at the VA


President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFamily immigration detention centers could be at capacity within days: report Trump likely to meet with Putin in July: report DOJ requests military lawyers to help prosecute immigration crimes: report MORE and his transition team made civil service reform a top priority, frequently criticizing the “waste, fraud, and abuse” that has come to symbolize much of the two-million-strong federal workforce. Now, he and Congress have the best opportunity in years to claim a victory in civil service reform – and help millions of veterans in the process – by passing the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017.

Civil service reform is long overdue across the federal government, but particularly at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Three years ago, national headlines exploded with the news of secret patient wait-lists at the Phoenix VA. This was just the beginning of what would become a nationwide scandal in which thousands of veterans died while waiting for healthcare. Yet despite countless congressional hearings, federal investigations, and a $16.3-billion reform bill passed in August 2014, very little has changed: As of this year, there were 45,000 medical appointments taking more than 120 days to schedule—a significant increase from a year ago.

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Contrary to claims by the VA’s primary labor union—the American Federation of Government Employees—money and manpower are not the problem.

The VA’s budget has grown by nearly 86 percent over the last eight years—from $97.7 billion in 2009 to a requested $182.3 billion in 2017, according to the VA. And with more than 360,000 employees, the VA is the second largest federal agency in terms of personnel after the Department of Defense.

The real problem is the lack of any meaningful accountability throughout the department. This emanates in part from the bureaucratic U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which adjudicates the disciplining of federal employees. After appeals and other procedural hurdles, it can sometimes take more than 700 days to terminate employees who knowingly commit misconduct that threatens veterans’ well-being.

Consider this: Three years after the secret wait-list scandal, fewer than 10 people have been fired. And it proved a herculean task to get rid of three senior employees directly implicated in the Phoenix VA. All the while, two of them were placed on administrative leave and continued receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in paychecks despite offering no compensable services to the government.

As things stand now, it is those who bravely do the right thing who are often punished. After Brandon Coleman—a substance abuse therapist in Phoenix—spoke up about an alarming series of suicides in 2015, he was harassed, threatened, and eventually put on administrative leave for 460 days. VA staff even tampered with Brandon’s medical files to try and discredit him. Those responsible for this mistreatment were either allowed to retire with benefits, receive paid administrative leave, or were not disciplined at all. 

This new legislation currently before the U.S. Congress, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, would bring much-needed reform to this federal bureaucracy run amok. It would dramatically shorten the termination and appeals process for VA employees and should end once and for all the practice of VA employees sitting on paid administrative leave for years while fighting their terminations. It also gives the VA secretary the authority to recoup bonuses of employees who are found to have engaged in misconduct and protects whistleblowers by preventing these expanded termination powers from being used against them.

Similar legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives last month on a bipartisan vote, and this new bill already has the support of senators from both parties. 

The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 really is the low-hanging fruit of civil service reform. Enacting it would not only improve the VA for our veterans, it would also allow both the Trump administration and Congress to claim an important victory. Veterans across the country are watching and demanding action.

Dan Caldwell is the director of policy for Concerned Veterans for America.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.