WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump plans to sign an executive order creating an accountability and whistleblower protection office at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Trump, who made improving veterans' care a prominent issue as he campaigned for office, was issuing the order Thursday while visiting the VA. It will create a new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection in the department. The eventual head of the office will report directly to VA Secretary David Shulkin.
Shulkin said the purpose is to help identify "barriers" that make it difficult to fire or reassign employees deemed unfit to work at the department and serve veterans.
Another function will be to help shield whistleblowers from retaliation.
The office is a byproduct of a 2014 scandal in which as many as 40 veterans died while waiting months for appointments at the VA medical center in Phoenix.
The House has passed a bill to make it easier for the VA to fire, suspend or demote employees for poor performance or bad conduct, and the Senate continues to work on its version of the measure. Shulkin said Trump's decision to create the office before Congress sends him a bill speaks to his commitment to accountability at the VA.
"He's asking through his executive order for VA to do everything that it can internally," Shulkin said at a White House briefing on Wednesday. "But we know that that's not going to be enough to get done what I want to get done, which is to be able to, once we identify people that need to leave the organization, to get them out quickly. So I do need legislative help as well."
Veterans' organizations agree that legislation is needed, and are pressing the Senate to act.
"Secretary Shulkin's hands will be tied until Congress passes strong accountability legislation," said Mark Lucas, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America. Lucas said the office was a "positive first step" but not enough to fix the culture at the VA.
The new office will also investigate reports of retaliation against VA employees who expose illegal or unethical conduct, Shulkin said. "We will take actions" if it is determined that an employee whistleblower has been subject to retaliation for coming forward, he said.
Existing VA employees will staff the office, despite department-wide staff shortages and a decision to leave thousands of positions unfilled. Shulkin said he didn't have dollar figures for how much the office would cost, but said it will require a "substantial commitment."