The ink from President Trump’s signature is still fresh on a new law signed on Friday that is designed to help veterans get better care and correct problems within the VA. The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act was written to get the ball rolling on fixing the systemic problems which have plagued the VA for years now — including multiple scandals leading to veterans’ deaths — by giving whistleblowers who shed light on problems greater protection, making it easier to fire problem employees, and making the department as a whole more accountable for the way it cares for veterans.
The heart of the legislation comes down to those two major aspects: giving more protection to whistleblowers who out corruption, and making it easier to get rid of the “bad apples” in the bunch.
Veterans groups are praising the new law as a welcomed and overdue reform of a broken system. The group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) has been advocating for reforms at the VA for three years now. Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of IAVA, said, “This is welcome news to veterans nationwide. Given that the scandal in Phoenix alerted the country to the outrageous state of the VA health care system nearly three years ago, this change is long overdue.” That was echoed by Dan Caldwell, Policy Director at Concerned Veterans for America, saying, “Veterans across the country can look forward to a new culture of accountability and integrity at the VA.”
The VA Accountability Act is the brainchild of Senators Marco Rubio, R-Florida; Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia; and Jon Tester, D-Montana. It passed through the Senate and House with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, thanks in part to the close involvement in crafting and support of the bill by VA Secretary, David Shulkin.
Sen. Tester said, “Probably 99.9 percent of the people who work in the VA do a great job. And the veterans will tell you when they go into the VA clinics, they do do a great job. But we got a few bad apples.”
That is why supporters of the bill saw it necessary to make firing bad employees easier at the VA. Employees still have an appeals process when it comes to employment termination, but that process is being shortened to weeks instead of years. In 2014, a national scandal rocked the VA and shocked the nation when it was discovered — through whistleblowers at the VA — that wait times for patients at a Phoenix VA facility were being falsified while veterans died waiting to be seen. Less than 10 people have been fired over that scandal so far, something that may very well change with the new law.
There is a 30 day notice period for employees before being fired, and during that period, those employees are still paid. As of the end of May, there were 1,500 employees with termination notices within the VA, with roughly 300 of those related to stealing drugs. Moving forward under the new law, the VA will have a “no-tolerance” policy when it comes to drug theft by employees.
“Slow, incremental, steady change isn’t what this organization needs,” VA Secretary, David Shulkin said in support of the VA Accountability Act. “What we need is bolder, fundamental change, dealing with the issues that — frankly — are really hard to deal with, that go back decades. That means, by definition, we’re going to have to take greater risks.”
Critics of the law include the largest federal employee union, the American Federation of Government Employees, and believe that the new provisions concerning employment termination will hinder filling the 49,000 current job vacancies in the agency. And while supporters agree that those vacancies need to be filled, many believe that the agency needs to get itself in order first to attract the best doctors, nurses, and other personnel. The new law does give VA Secretaries new authority to directly appoint certain positions, such as medical center directors and other leadership offices, which supports say will lead to more and better hiring.
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Added to this is the latest news from VA Secretary, David Shulkin that the Department of Veterans Affairs is looking at closing hundreds of buildings that are unused or underused to better streamline agency. “We owe it to the American taxpayer to apply as much of our funding as possible to helping veterans. Maintaining vacant buildings, including close to 100 from the Revolutionary War and Civil War, makes no sense, and we’re working as quickly as possible to get them out of our inventory,” Shulkin said.
More than 1,100 buildings owned and operated by the VA have been identified and labeled as unused, underused, or unusable. Over the next two years, 430 of those buildings will be closed for good. Another roughly 700 buildings will take on leasing tenants to fill unused space and bring in additional revenue for the VA. The maintenance costs for the unused and underused buildings comes to $7 million annually, which Shulkin hopes to use instead for veterans’ treatments.
The other important factor of the new law is whistleblower protections for anyone within the VA who brings wrongdoing or corruption to light. VA facilities will also be required to provide additional training to let employees know about their whistleblower rights and responsibilities in an effort to create an atmosphere of accountability within the agency and a renewed level of trust with the public and the veterans that it serves.
“It is critical that employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are held to the highest performance standards, and that they are accountable when those standards are not met,” The White House said in a statement. “In addition, it is important that employees be able to discuss concerns without fear of retribution or reprisal, particularly when those concerns deal with the quality of care Federal employees provide to our veterans. Therefore, whistleblower rights and processes must be clear and unambiguous.”
In addition to the protections for whistleblowers within the VA, a complaint hotline was recently created for veterans who are having trouble with their care of benefits. More information about The White House/VA Veterans’ Complaint Hotline can be found on the next page by clicking below.
Jacob H. is an award-winning journalist and photojournalist who currently resides is West Michigan with his wife. In his spare time, Jacob enjoys writing, photography, mountain climbing, and camping.