DENVER — The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said Monday the troubled VA should fire problem employees faster and that Congress should make it easier for the entire government to dismiss bad workers.
"I want accountability faster," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said Monday. "I think the American people want it faster."
Miller made an unusual joint appearance with VA Secretary Robert McDonald in Denver before a national convention of the Disabled American Veterans, discussing how to fix the agency's problems, including long wait times for veterans to get health care and massive cost overruns at a medical center under construction outside Denver.
Miller and other members of Congress are unhappy about how long the VA has taken to discipline employees accused of covering up the long wait times and those responsible for the construction cost overruns in Denver.
Last month, the House passed a measure that Miller sponsored that would streamline the VA's process for firing problem workers. Democrats denounced it and the White House has threatened a veto, saying it would deny VA workers important protections that other federal workers get.
Miller said he was open to changing his proposal.
In Denver Monday, McDonald said Miller's plan would make it harder for him to recruit the best workers. He said the measure would also tie his hands by limiting bonuses and forcing him to rotate workers into new jobs periodically.
"You can't motivate good people to do a good job by punishing them for things that others have done," he said.
Miller suggested the measures be applied to all departments of government.
"Look, (if) it works at the VA, let's spread it throughout the entire federal government so people are not ensconced," he said.
McDonald said the VA is doing more to keep workers in line, saying more than 1,700 have been terminated since he took office in July 2014, compared with 1,500 in the previous year. He said a VA employee in Alabama faces criminal charges on allegations related to veterans' access to health care, and the agency has proposed disciplinary action against 186 others.
"I would call that accountability," he said.
No senior leader in the VA's Veterans Health Administration got a bonus or an outstanding job performance rating for 2014, he added.
Investigations are still underway into why the cost of the new medical center in the Denver suburb of Aurora nearly tripled to $1.72 billion, and McDonald said criminal prosecutions are possible if evidence of wrongdoing is found.
McDonald said one reason for the cost overrun was an "over the top" design. The VA has also blamed problems in the contracting process.
Congress has approved enough money to keep construction rolling through the end of the fiscal year in late September, but the VA says it needs another $600 million. The Obama administration and Congress have been negotiating about where to get the money.
Miller suggested the administration should look outside the VA, at other departments.
"They could find the money, scraping it from other nooks and crannies," he said.
McDonald declined to comment on the proposal afterward. Previous suggestions to tap into other parts of the VA budget have been shot down because they would have delayed projects elsewhere.
McDonald also said the VA has reduced its backlog of disability claims from 611,000 in mid-2013 to fewer than 110,000 today.
Both Miller and McDonald said they supported the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, passed last year, that lets some veterans get health care outside the VA system at government expense.
Miller said outside doctors and hospitals could provide even more health care for veterans.