Lawmakers reach agreement on long-stalled VA accountability bill

Congressional lawmakers reached an agreement on a bill Thursday to make it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to fire its employees, part of an accountability effort touted by President Trump.

The measure, led by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., softens portions of a bill that had passed the House in March, which Democrats criticized as unfairly harsh on workers.

"To fully reform the VA and provide our nation's veterans with the quality care they were promised and deserve, we must ensure the department can efficiently dismiss employees who are not able or willing to do their jobs," Rubio said.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., agreed to back the bill after modifications that would give VA employees added time to appeal disciplinary actions. House Veterans Affairs’ Committee Chairman Phil Roe, sponsor of the House measure, said he would support the edits.

The Senate bill to be introduced Thursday adopts several portions of that previous Isakson bill, including a longer appeal process than provided in the House bill — 180 days vs. 45 days, though workers would not be paid during that appeal. VA executives would be held to a tougher standard than rank-and-file employees for discipline.

The Senate bill also codifies into law the VA accountability office created under Trump's order, but with changes to give the head of the office more independent authority and require the office to submit regular updates to Congress.

The deal follows a fresh warning from the VA inspector general’s office of continuing patient safety problems at the VA medical center in Washington. After warning of serious problems there last month, the IG's "rapid response" team visited the facility again on Wednesday and found a patient prepped for vascular surgery in an operating room, under anesthesia, whose surgery was postponed because "the surgeon did not have a particular sterile instrument necessary to perform the surgery."

The team also found "surgical instruments that had color stains of unknown origin in sterile packs," according to the IG's letter sent Wednesday to the VA. The IG again urged the department to take immediate action to ensure patients "are not placed at unnecessary risk."

Congress has had difficulty coming to an agreement on a bill after the Phoenix VA scandal, where as many as 40 veterans died while waiting months for appointments as VA employees created secret waiting lists and other falsehoods to cover up delays.

A 2014 law gave the VA greater power to discipline executives, but the department stopped using that authority after the Obama Justice Department deemed it likely unconstitutional.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.