Strengthening accountability at the VA

Published 3:00 am Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Two years ago, in the wake of the veterans wait list scandal that shocked the nation, Congress rightly passed and the President signed a new reform law bringing unprecedented accountability to the Department of Veterans Affairs. For the first time, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs was given the authority to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and swiftly fire senior managers responsible for the long list of failures.

I supported that new law, and it proved beneficial. In fact, the former director of our own scandal-ridden Central Alabama VA became the first one fired under the Secretary’s new authority. However, I also maintained that the law did not go far enough. Senior managers are certainly not the only ones responsible for failures at the VA. There has been a culture of complacency up and down the chain of command for some time, and the lengthy, laborious process for disciplining or removing problem employees only exacerbates it. The same strict accountability standards that apply to senior managers need to extend to rank-and-file employees so that no one can get away with abuse or neglect at the VA.

I’m pleased to report that Congress is taking action to do just that. Last week, the House passed H.R. 1259, the VA Accountability First Act, which provides the Secretary of Veterans Affairs increased flexibility to remove, suspend, or demote any VA employee for poor performance or misconduct. The bill also authorizes stricter penalties, including recouping bonuses and expenses, and reducing an employee’s pension if they are convicted of a felony in relation to their job at the VA.

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The VA Accountability First Act also streamlines hiring authority for VA medical center directors and regional directors. Based on my experience with the Central Alabama VA, I can tell you this is sorely needed. Because of bureaucratic hang-ups within the Department of Veterans Affairs’ hiring process, it took two years to land a new permanent director here, which significantly hindered the system’s progress. I have consistently made the case that the VA Secretary needs the authority to cut through that bureaucracy and place qualified leaders in these critical roles, so I am pleased this provision is included in our bill.

In addition to strengthening accountability, the House passed two other VA policy reforms this week. H.R. 1181, the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act, aims to ensure the VA does not unfairly designate an individual as mentally incompetent and therefore threaten their 2nd Amendment right to firearms without due process. Specifically, the bill ensures that only a judge or magistrate – not a VA bureaucrat – has the authority to rule that a beneficiary is a danger to themselves or others.

Another bill, H.R. 369 improves the ability to hire and retain physicians and other medical professionals at the VA. It establishes a recruitment and retention program to enable the VA to attract the very best physicians in the field so veterans have access to first-rate care.

In his recent address to Congress, President Trump emphasized his commitment to cleaning up the VA. I believe his Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Dr. David Shulkin, is uniquely qualified to do that, but Congress must give him the proper tools to be successful

The VA may have left the front page for the moment, but the problems are still very present. The work of improving veterans’ access to care is far from finished, and I will not stop until the work is done.