The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation making it easier for Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to fire employees, including senior executives.
The vote, a lopsided 390-33, came shortly after 6 p.m., and hours after the actual floor debate on the measure. The Senate is expected to take up its own version of the bill.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, author of the bill, called the vote an important step toward ending a "culture of complacency" that threatens patient safety within the VA's health care system.
The VA has been battered over allegations that up to 40 veterans died while waiting to see a doctor at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. The vets were allegedly on a secret list maintained to hide the scope of the appointments backlog.
Miller also said that 23 other preventable veteran deaths occurred elsewhere at VA hospitals.
"VA's well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for negligence and mismanagement is tarnishing the reputation of the organization and may actually be encouraging more veteran suffering instead of preventing it," Miller said in a statement after the vote. "We need to give the VA Secretary the authority he needs to fix things."
The House vote came late on the same day that President Barak Obama defended Shinseki from critics demanding his own firing or resignation over Phoenix allegations.
Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., became the first Democrat lawmaker to publicly call for Shinseki to go.
"The first person we need to fire is the secretary of Veterans Affairs," he said. "We respect his sacrifice for his country and everything else, but the buck stops at the top."
Scott accused the VA Medical Center in Atlanta of lying to himself and Miller when they visited there following the suicide deaths of four veterans. When they asked if there had been any other suicides, the officials said no, Scott said.
"They told a damn lie! Because the very next day it was exposed there was another solider that committed suicide. And they covered it up," he said.
Miller, however, has not pushed for Shinseki's ouster at VA.
"General Shinseki is a good man. He wants to hold others accountable. But he is being held back by a failed civil service system that makes it nearly impossible to remove SES employees," Miller said.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, ranking member of the House veterans' panel, endorsed the bill "reluctantly," he said.
While the bill will make it easier for Shinseki to fire or demote poor performing employees in the Senior Executive Service, it will also have the effect of turning the roughly 400 Senior Executive Service positions into "at will" jobs. By law, at will employees can be fired for any legal reason without having to establish just cause.
Michaud also criticized the bill because it was drafted with no input from the full veterans committee. As written, he said, it will not even extend to one of the officials recently suspended in connection with an alleged secret wait list at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Miller countered that both parties had input when the bill was worked on in subcommittee and argued that it is time to act.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org