WASHINGTON – The House approved a bill Wednesday aimed at making it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire employees for misconduct or poor performance — a source of ongoing tension with the Obama administration.
The Republican-sponsored bill was approved, 310-116. Sixty-nine Democrats and 241 Republicans voted for the bill.
It would shorten the time employees are given to respond to proposed discipline or firing and would eliminate a provision that allows senior executives to appeal disciplinary actions to an independent review board.
GOP lawmakers have been urging the VA to fire more workers as a key step to improving the scandal-plagued agency.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said a "pervasive lack of accountability among employees at all levels" is "the biggest obstacle standing in the way of VA reform."
The House bill is the latest in a series of efforts by lawmakers to respond to a two-year-old scandal over chronic delays for veterans seeking medical care, and falsified records covering up the long waits. Veterans on secret waiting lists faced scheduling delays of up to a year, and as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA hospital in Arizona, according to an investigation by the VA's inspector general.
Similar problems were soon discovered at VA medical centers nationwide, affecting thousands of veterans and prompting an outcry in Congress.
Miller, R-Fla., said reform efforts "are doomed to fail" until the problem of employee accountability is fixed.
"For too long, union bosses, administration officials and their enablers have used every trick in the book to help VA bureaucrats who can't or won't do their jobs remain firmly entrenched in the agency's bureaucracy," he said. The accountability bill he sponsored "gets rid of loopholes" that have "protected deadwood employees for years," Miller said. "Union bosses and defenders of the broken status quo will oppose this bill, and that is exactly why it must become law."
The American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents 230,000 VA employees, said the bill would undermine veterans' health care and other services by gutting employees' due process rights to challenge wrongful firing or retaliation against whistleblowers.
"If Congress passes this bill, frontline employees who dare to speak up against mismanagement and patient harm will face retaliation, harassment and the loss of their jobs," said union president J. David Cox Sr.
Cox called the bill "a partisan effort to allow favoritism and cronyism" by turning VA workers into "at-will" employees who can be fired at any time with little to no recourse.
The Obama administration opposes the bill, saying it could "undermine VA's workforce" and ultimately hinder services to veterans.
In a statement Monday, the White House said the bill's focus on firing or demoting employees without procedural protections "is misguided and burdensome. ... This approach significantly alters and diminishes important rights and protections that are available to the vast majority of other employees across the government and which are essential to safeguarding employees' rights and the merit system."
Miller's bill would shorten the time for an independent appeals board to decide on most cases involving VA employees. Senior executives — who typically earn well above $100,000 a year — could appeal only to an internal VA review board. Rulings in favor of the employee could be overturned by the VA secretary.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald said Wednesday that the department favors a less punitive bill approved by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. The bipartisan bill also would streamline removal of rank-and-file employee based on performance or misconduct and would ensure that employees do not receive pay or benefits while they appeal a removal decision.
The Senate bill would grant the VA secretary greater authority to discipline senior executives, while requiring appeals to be decided within 90 days.
McDonald has said the VA "can't fire our way to excellence."
He and President Barack Obama have endorsed a congressional panel's recommendation to create a veterans' health care system that coordinates government and private care. The administration said it supports 15 of 18 recommendations made by the Commission on Care, a panel created as part of a 2014 law overhauling the VA.
In its July report, the panel called for "fundamental, dramatic change" to improve the health care VA provides to more than 9 million veterans a year.