Lawmakers Blast VA for Abandoning 'Fast-track' Firing Authority

VA Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. McDonald discussed his visits at VA facilities across the country and outlined his priorities.Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
VA Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Lawmakers are furious that Veterans Affairs Department will no longer use the fast-track system for firing employees that Congress gave it more than a year ago.

Department officials on Friday notified lawmakers they were passing on the expanded firing authority included in the VA Accountability Act of 2014. Officials haven't yet explained the move, and the department's record of disciplining employees under the law is unclear.

Lawmakers have repeatedly criticized VA Secretary Bob McDonald for what they say is an inability to fire problem employees, including one who returned to work after being arrested in connection with an armed robbery in Puerto Rico.

For example, Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the decision to not use the expedited authority of accountability act is "outrageous and unconscionable.

"Two years ago, veterans were forced to wait far too long for care because of incompetent executives," he said. "Since then, we've seen scandal after scandal emerge at the department. While some progress has been made to hold those responsible accountable, there is still a long way to go and choosing to ignore these key reforms is a slap in the face to our veterans."

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida who heads the counterpart panel in the House, said the the department "isn't very good at disciplining employees, but this decision calls into question whether department leaders are even interested in doing so.

"After all, VA is a place where egregious employee behavior, such as armed robbery participation and wait-time manipulation, is routinely tolerated," he said. "This decision underscores the urgent need for civil-service reform across the federal government that enables leaders to swiftly and efficiently discipline those who can't or won't do their jobs -- an ability that is presently almost nonexistent."

Among the most widely known firings was that of Sharon Helman, former director of the VA Medical Center in Phoenix in connection with the wait-times scandal and department's findings that at least six veterans died before they could get an appointment at the facility.

Helman appealed to the Merit System Protection Board, whichsupported the firing but only because VA officials also found she had accepted some $50,000 in gifts from a vendor wanting to do business with the medical center.

Several months ago, however, prompted by other MSPB judges' rulings -- overturning VA disciplinary actions against two senior executives --McDonald met with lawmakers to discuss changes he wants to see at the department.

McDonald wants hospital directors and other senior executives placed under Title 38 -- the same job category as doctors and nurses. This would allow the VA secretary to demote or terminate employees for cause, without them having the ability to appeal to the MSPB.

"[This] gives us more flexibility to pay them more competitively," McDonald said at the time, "but it also gives us more flexibility in disciplinary matters without all the things that happened with the SES employees."

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

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