Senator Says Congress Must Keep Empowering VA to Fire Bad Executives

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia

The newly named chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee says the law passed last year to crack down on problem executives within the Veterans Affairs Department may need fine tuning but there will be no backing down on demands for increased accountability.

"There may need to be some tweaks to the Veterans Choice Act ... but we won't back away from [insisting on] discipline," Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia said on Monday.  "We're going to do anything we can to make it work. We can't wait for more years to go by, we have a big responsibility to the veterans."

Over the past four or five months since the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act was signed into law, the VA has made about 700 personnel changes, Isakson said, "[but] most have been voluntary separations, retirements or transfers" and not taken as a disciplinary action.

The law overwhelmingly approved by Congress following a House and Senate conference was framed as get-tough legislation giving the VA secretary the authority to quickly jettison mismanaging or poorly performing officials, including those in the senior executive service ranks.

However, when VA Secretary Bob McDonald moved to fire five executives since the law went into effect, two were able to retire before the termination was carried out. The most publicized firing was that of Sharon Helman as director of the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona -- ground zero for the scandal involving secret wait lists, patient data manipulation and veterans dying awaiting appointments.

But Helman's firing in November, some seven months after she was placed on administrative leave over the revelations, was upheld on appeal only because it was proven she accepted gifts from a vendor's representative.

The Merit Service Protection Board (MSPB), which ruled on Helman's appeal in December, suggested there are constitutional issues regarding a provision within the law stipulating that a firing is permanent if the board does not say otherwise within 21 days.

The board also suggested the five-day period given officials to appeal a firing – a policy set by the VA, and not part of the law – could also be a problem, the board said, suggesting it needed examination.

Ryan Gallucci, deputy director for national veterans' services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, believes there has been "some confusion on what the expectations were" for the law.

"This was supposed to be a first-step remedy to improve accountability," he said. "This wasn't carte blanche to fire VA executives at will. You still have to build a case."

Questions such as the five-day appeal time and 21-days given the MSPB for a ruling "need to be fleshed out in the legal process," he said.

"We're in new territory here. We want proper accountability for employees who do harm to veterans," he said. "We feel there should be special exceptions [to the law] for employees who deliver care to veterans. This [the VA] is different from other federal jobs, there are very real consequences for veterans who receive care."

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has defended the law – which he championed aggressively during conference negotiations with Senate counterparts.

The problems are not with the law, but with the VA failing to use it as often as it could, implementing it the way it was intended and failing to properly make a case for mismanagement against Helman.

Isakson said that he believes VA Secretary Bob McDonald has been doing "a great job" since he took over the department, but says "VA has a culture problem."

"Congressmen come in for two years, Senators for six years, but VA employees are around for 30 years," he said. Some in the department see lawmakers' efforts as "another attempt by Congress to change the way things are done at VA," and that they can just wait them out.

But that's not how it is going to be, he said.

"I'm going to visit some VA employees in the near future. They need to see us around because we want to see change," Isakson said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com

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