VA Union Issues, Not Claims Backlog, Dominate Debate at Hearing

A June 21, 2013 file photo of the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
A June 21, 2013 file photo of the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

The partisan lines were quickly drawn in the House last week on the perennial issue of union business being conducted during regular hours at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Rep. Phil Roe, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, spoke of the "frustration that I have" on hearing reports that a doctor making $212,000 at a VA facility in Los Angeles and an emergency room doctor making $242,000 at a VA facility in Chicago were spending 100 percent of their time on union business.

"We certainly understand that there can be a union," said the Tennessee Republican, but "how in the world do you explain that to people?"

Roe said that the VA's budget has risen from $97 billion to $180 billion since 2009, and its workforce has grown from 260,000 to 370,000 during the same period. The VA's problems are "not for lack of personnel, not for lack of money," he said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, countered that union employees at the VA doing business during regular hours, referred to as "official time," are vital to the mission of improving care. He cited "the ability of unions to protect the whistleblowers who help prevent waste, fraud and abuse. Sometimes, I think some of my colleagues forget that whistleblowers are federal employees."

The back and forth came at a joint hearing of two House Veterans Affairs Subcommittees on a Government Accountability Office report released last week, stating that the current VA systems cannot accurately track the amount of time employees spend on union activities.

According to the GAO report, the VA uses two timekeeping systems -- a legacy system, called the Enhanced Time and Attendance System (ETA), which remains in effect at some facilities during a changeover to the VA Time and Attendance System (VATAS).

The former does not have codes for employees and supervisors to record the local use of official time for union work but the latter does, the GAO said.

"As of September 2016, approximately 50 percent of VA facilities and about one-third of VA employees (120,000) had transitioned to VATAS, with its official time-recording capabilities. The full VATAS multi-facility rollout is scheduled to be completed by July 2018," the GAO said.

In his prepared statement for the hearing, J. David Cox, National President of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, said the GAO report "found time and again that elected employee representatives who worked with VA managers on workplace and patient issues brought value because of the deep commitment to veterans care that AFGE shares with [the Department of Veterans Affairs.]"

"It must be emphasized that nowhere in the GAO report is there any suggestion or allegation of union wrongdoing with regard to the use of official time in DVA. GAO found no union failure to report information and no instance where information reported was inaccurate. Rather, the GAO found simply that DVA failed to collect the data properly," Cox said.

However, Republicans at the hearing cited a finding in the GAO report that 346 VA employees in 2015 were authorized to spend 100 percent of their work time on union activities.

Some of those employees were nurses or other health care providers, the Republicans said.

"I don't believe the average American would see this as reasonable or as necessary," said Rep. Jodey Arrington, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic opportunity. "I believe the average American would be outraged."

Other Republicans cited a 2012 Office of Personnel Management report, which found that 250,000 VA employees spent about 1.1 million hours on union activities.

"Official time certainly is of benefit, but when it's used in excess, it becomes abusive," said Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations.

Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat, agreed that "We need to do a better job of accounting for official time," but noted the relative silence of his Republican colleagues on President Donald Trump's federal hiring freeze that has left the VA with 45,000 vacancies, according to Dr. David Shulkin, the new VA secretary.

Shulkin has said he would approve 37,000 exemptions to the hiring freeze for public safety or health reasons, but that would still leave the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) with 763 positions which would not be exempted, Takano said.

The VBA has a backlog of about 100,000 disability claims cases and another backlog of more than 400,000 disability claims cases on appeal, Takano said. Lifting the hiring freeze at the VBA would "help our veterans get benefits faster. Our veterans are being hurt because those jobs aren't being filled."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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