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Senate urged to debate bill that would OK firings of senior VA managers

WASHINGTON — As the White House gave embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki more time Thursday, Congress and veterans took direct aim at agency executives who have overseen scheduling abuses spread throughout the nationwide health care system.

A coalition of House lawmakers, including Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., and veteran groups gathered on Capitol Hill and pressed the Senate to debate a bill that would give the secretary new powers to fire VA executives at will. The House overwhelmingly passed its version last week as reports of secret wait lists and 40 veteran deaths at a Phoenix VA hospital ballooned into a national scandal.

An interim VA inspector general report issued Wednesday confirmed that the practice of falsifying appointments to make patient wait times appear shorter was a “systemic” problem in the health care system, which serves 6.5 million vets per year. A memorandum included in the IG report shows that the VA and its regional directors were warned in 2010 to stamp out complex “gaming strategies” that were being used to manipulate the scheduling system — and improve employee performance ratings to get awards and bonuses.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who sponsored the House bill, said the department’s entrenched management needs to be cleaned out because it is no longer responsive to Shinseki or President Barack Obama, who are also under fire for their handling of the spreading scandal.

“There is a [VA] bureaucracy that does not care who leaves because they are going to be there longer” than the secretary or current administration, said Miller, who has blamed Obama for the scandal and called for Shinseki to resign.

On Thursday, calls for Shinseki’s resignation spread across Congress but White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama is waiting for the secretary and the VA to complete more of a systemwide audit before making any decisions on who is accountable for the department’s deep access problems.

The legislation would affect about 450 executives within the VA, which employs about 300,000, according to Miller.

Stewart Hickey, national executive director of the veterans’ group AMVETS, said the VA executive management has a “hydra culture” that led to widespread wrongdoing and it must be ended by firing bad employees — not by simply removing Shinseki.

“Cutting off the head of a problem is not the answer,” Hickey said. “We can chop off one head or another and find two more growing in its place.”

He said new VA secretary powers to fire and demote management should be immediately passed into law and then used to get rid of all executives who were employed in 2010 when VA Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operations and Management William Schoenhard warned directors to stop manipulating wait lists.

The legislation is also supported by the American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American and Concerned Veterans for America.

But the Senior Executives Association, a trade group representing federal managers, has strongly opposed the measures in Congress, saying federal law already requires senior executives to be fired if they receive two unsatisfactory performance ratings in five years or two less than successful ratings in three years.

The VA already has the authority to fire any senior executive after one unsatisfactory performance review, according to the group.

The bill passed last week by the House and another being considered by the Senate would allow Shinseki to act without that administrative review.

The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was blocked from a vote last week by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and a moderate on the VA scandal.

Sanders said he supported the thrust of Rubio’s legislation but called for more discussion before taking a vote. The bill is slated for a hearing next week when the Senate returns to Capitol Hill for business.

Derek Bennett, chief of staff for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the legislation could help reverse the increasingly bleak reports of patient deaths and falsified wait lists.

“We urge the Senate to pass the VA Accountability Act and for the president to sign it immediately into law,” Bennett said.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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