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Lawmakers Want to Help the VA Fire Poor-Performing Workers

Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday said they could support amending 1978 Civil Service Reform Act in order to make it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to fire employees who are mismanaging or not performing on the job.

“The American public wants accountability. They want accountability from us as members of Congress,” Rep. Tom Walz, D-Minnesota, said when asked the question during a discussion about the difficulties the VA has faced terminating problem executives, including those linked to the patient wait-times scandal. “These [executives] had protections that went well over and above what needed to be done. I’m certainly open to it.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who chairs the House veterans committee, said he also would favor amending the 1978 reform legislation prompted by various federal abuses of the 1970s, including Watergate. The legislation abolished the Civil Service Commission and divided up responsibilities among the Office of Personnel Management, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Authority, all of which now figure into the termination and appeals process.

“The times they are a’changing,” Miller said. “People are angry because they don’t think the federal government is serving them well. … They want people who want do the right thing [for veterans] but people who won’t or can’t do their job? They’ll do something somewhere else, because there are a lot of people ready to come inside the VA … they want to come in and go to work.”

The difficulty in firing officials for poor performance and mismanagement prompted Congress last year to pass the VA Accountability Act, which is supposed to make the termination process simpler by speeding up the times of notification and appeals.

Miller said that while VA Secretary Bob McDonald claims to have fired about 2,200 employees since he took over the department last year, about half were let go while still in their probationary period. That means they did not have the protections that regular, full-time employees, including executives, have.

“I don’t count those as firings, though technically they may be,” he said.

He also pointed out that only three executives were fired in connection with the wait times scandal that contributed to the deaths of some veterans. But the former director of the Phoenix, Arizona, VA Medical Center – ground zero for the scandal – was fired for accepting gifts from a would-be vendor, he said.

During an informal question and answer session after the presentation Miller told Military.com that the VA hospital in Phoenix again showed itself to be “most indicative of the problems that exist within the department” when it refused to cooperate with a special human resources task force sent out from VA headquarters to make recommendations on the facility’s operations last year.

“The central office sent a team down there to help people deal with the human resources positions and they’re told to get out,” Miller said.

The group was stalled and finally booted out by hospital Director Glen Grippen, according to The Arizona Republic, which on Monday reported on the group’s report experience.

“At the time of our exit, no changes were made to the Phoenix HR Team’s organizational structure or workload distribution process,” the newspaper quoted from the report. “The constant delays and obstructions made it impossible."

But Miller said it is not only Phoenix, and that the current organizational structure across VA allows for senior executives at the various regional networks to set up their own systems of operation.

“There are too many health care networks. Each of these becomes its own fiefdom, even the [individual] medical centers in some places, where the directors surround themselves with their lieutenants and those lieutenants are focused outward to protect the leader. That’s just not the way to help the veterans.”

--Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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