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Wilkie: Union exploiting COVID-19 crisis for contract gains

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A White House official once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” and a decade later, a major federal employee union leader is apparently following that advice by trying to use COVID-19 to sow discontent within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). I am concerned that this insincere approach isn’t in keeping with what I hope can continue to be challenging but ultimately productive discussions with the union to benefit veterans.

On this website and others, the union representing thousands of VA employees has decided to use the pandemic as leverage to negotiate a longstanding contract dispute in the press. This strategy is being deployed even as VA grapples with protecting thousands of veterans from a virus that has challenged health care systems across the globe, and as VA employees work together to fight this pandemic on the front lines.

The union’s op-ed tries to pit VA leadership and VA employees against each other. But the union misreads both sides, as the vast majority of us share the same goal – serving those who wore the uniform during this emergency. We’ve seen several stories from across the nation about VA employees who answered the call to duty and volunteered for some of the toughest assignments, and we’ve seen a sharp drop in absenteeism during the crisis.

Six years ago, many rightly questioned VA’s commitment to serve veterans after systematic attempts to deny care were uncovered. Today, I have no doubt about the commitment of VA employees, and contrary to the union’s claim, VA leadership cares deeply about its workers because we are on the same mission.

Their renewed dedication to duty helped propel VA to sixth place in a survey of “best places to work” in the federal government for the last two years, after VA was 17th on that list in 2017 in the wake of scandals that plagued the last administration.

The union makes several other dubious or simply false claims, including that VA is hostile to telework, an argument that seems to ignore why VA exists at all. VA allows telework to the extent it can, but the majority of our employees operate 170 medical centers and more than 1,200 clinics, and the very essence of their job is to see patients and treat them in person.

But the most unfounded argument from the union is that VA leadership is trying to privatize the department. This does not line up with the record high 59.9 million appointments we delivered to veterans last year, 1.7 million more than the year before, even as we gave veterans the option of real, permanent choice of seeing a private doctor when it’s in their best interest.

And it isn’t supported by the record high $220 billion budget Congress delivered for VA, or the $243 billion budget the Trump administration is seeking in the next fiscal year.

These can hardly be read as signs that VA is going away. Anyone claiming VA is on the verge of being privatized is disregarding verifiable facts and looking for controversy where there is none.

It appears as if the union bosses are not happy that the Trump administration has taken significant steps to make sure caring for veterans is Mission No. 1 at VA after the scandals of the prior administration.

One of those steps has been reducing the amount of “official time” employees can use during the workday to spend on union business. That’s no minor adjustment – VA employees have been allowed to spend tens of thousands of hours during the workday on union business instead of caring for veterans.

In the second quarter of this fiscal year, we’ve managed to reduce “official time” by more than 40 percent, from 135,000 hours to 76,000 hours. That’s 59,000 more hours spent caring for veterans.

As VA secretary, it’s been incredible to watch VA employees work together to ward off a virus that tries to keep us isolated. We have supplanted face-to-face visits with telehealth and phone calls, but we are also striving for ways to stay connected even when we are forced to contend with physical separation.

Our results have been impressive. We have kept our internal infection rate lower than any other major health care system you can name, managed our supplies across the entire country, and have tested more than 290,000 patients for the virus through late June, about 75 percent of whom are recovering at home. I’ve told members of Congress that VA staff is worthy of the highest praise for these efforts.

Complaints about collective bargaining terms without facts on how VA has improved by all of us working together detract from a spirit of cooperation that I know exists at all levels in VA. This crisis should bring us closer together, not be used by some to drive us apart while lives are still at stake.

Robert Wilkie is the 10th U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs

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