Hundreds of members of The American Legion gathered before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees on Wednesday to hear their leaders slam the Veterans Affairs Department for failing to hold VA employees accountable for conduct they say should have had them fired.
"VA has described accountability as a top priority in the aftermath of scandals blamed for costing some veterans their lives, the payout of questionable performance bonuses, and ill-fated efforts to discipline executives who were found to have abused their positions," Legion Commander Dale Barnett said.
But that's not what veterans have seen, he added, most recently when the VA's move to discipline senior executives was overturned on appeal and the employees sent back to work, the previous jobs and salaries in restored.
"Veterans do not see this as accountability," Barnett told the lawmakers.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told the Legionnaires that legislation was coming that will strengthen the department's leadership's hand when it comes to disciplining employees.
"I have committed myself to see to it that before this term is over this year, hopefully by the 31st of March, we'd begin the process of passing comprehensive omnibus bill that incorporates the bills we all know need to become law," Isakson said.
The Legion earlier on Wednesday announced it had awarded Isakson its National Commander's Distinguished Public Service Award, which is given annually to an elected official who has established an outstanding record in support of those principles advanced by The American Legion.
At the hearing, Isakson said the coming legislation will include a number of proposals by VA Secretary Bob McDonald, including one that would convert Senior Executive Service-level employees, including administrators and directors who manage the agency's medical centers, to Title 38 employees, including professional medical staff such as doctors and nurses.
Title 38 employees do not have the same Civil Service appeals process as SES employees. The latter may appeal disciplinary actions to the Merit System Protection Board, which is where the actions against several recent workers were overturned.
The final arbiter in a disciplinary appeal involving Title38 workers would be the VA secretary or his designee.
Isakson said comprehensive legislation will also include language to protect whistleblowers from retaliation, which has been a frequent complaint against the VA.
Isakson said "99.9 percent of the employees in the VA do a great job," he said. "They are brought down and torn down from incidents like what happened in Pennsylvania, when people who are disciplined can lose their jobs, have those jobs restored for no apparent reason."
Isakson was referencing the case of Diana Rubens, director of the Philadelphia regional office until VA demoted and transferred her for using her position to obtain the job while picking up more than $400,000 from the department in relocation costs.
She appealed her demotion to the MSPB, which found in her favor and sent her back to Philadelphia.
VA also took disciplinary action against Kimberly Graves, who was reassigned from her job as regional director of the St. Paul, Minnesota, office for similar reasons. But that decision, too, was overturned by the board.
The Legion also said the VA must do a better job of bringing down its backlog of appealed claims. Since the department made first-time claims a priority in 2010 and diverted more money and manpower to processing the paperwork, the appeals backlog has mushroomed to more than 400,000.
But beyond the simple growth in new appeals is another problem, according to the VA -- the law that allows veterans to continue an appeal year after year. In one often-mentioned case, a veteran has been appealing his VA-rejected claim for 25 years.
Rep. Corinne Brown, a Democrat from Florida and ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, asked the Legion panel what they recommend.
"Tell me, 'What do we do when the appeals process [goes on]?'" she said. "At some point 'No' might be the answer – not for my constituents, 'No' is never the answer! But for someone else, 'No' might be the answer," she said to laughter.
Louis Celli, veterans affairs and rehabilitation division director for the Legion, said it comes down to making a system that veterans believe in.
"We have to instill faith in the system," he said. "Our veterans do not have enough faith in the Department of Veterans Affairs adjudication system to know their claim was processed accurately the first time.
"If we could get that adjudication system improved and processed the first time we wouldn't have the 440,000 appeals that we're dealing with today," he added.
The joint hearing was the first of several that the lawmakers will be holding with veterans' organizations.
On March 2 the panels will hear from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and on March 3 from Paralyzed Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, Blinded Veterans of America, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, National Guard Association of the United States, AMVETS, Wounded Warrior Project and Gold Star Wives.
On March 16 the lawmakers are scheduled to hear from the Fleet Reserve Association, The Retired Enlisted Association, the National Association of Directors of Veterans Affairs, the Military Officers Association of America, Air Force Sergeants Association, the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization, the Non-Commissioned Officers Association, Jewish War Veterans, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.