WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs told the Senate on Tuesday that its plan to take sole control over firing executives could help fill dozens of vacant management posts at veteran medical facilities across the country.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald pitched some upsides of eliminating hundreds of VA executives’ right to appeal firings to an independent merit board. He said positives include higher pay and quicker hiring of medical officials as he testified to lawmakers who are hoping to craft new legislation on VA firings by next month.
The VA has proposed the dramatic shift away from the employment protections as part of its upcoming annual budget just as the Senate is pushing ahead with legislation. It comes amid persistent public criticism over its seeming inability to fire misbehaving managers, despite a nearly two-year effort by McDonald to clean up dysfunction and wrongdoing within the agency.
McDonald said the proposed changes would make VA “virtually as flexible as the private sector” in its ability to hire and fire its top employees.
“People would appeal to me,” he said.
VA said a recent high-profile firing decision was thwarted by a Merit Systems Protection Board. Linda Weiss, director of the Albany-Stratton VA Medical Center in New York, was fired by VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson for failing to properly handle staff misconduct, including theft of drugs, but was reinstated earlier this month by a board decision.
A merit board also overturned punishments for Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, two executives who auditors found were involved in a scheme to move into other jobs with fewer responsibilities but the same salaries and hefty relocation payments.
McDonald said the proposal would also have the benefit of allowing the VA to pay executives more and cut down the time it takes to fill key positions — an advantage for its health care network.
“We compete for health care professionals from the best health care systems in the country,” he said.
The average VA medical center director is paid “at best half” of what they could earn in the private sector, according to McDonald. Meanwhile, hiring can take six months on average.
That has led to 34 medical centers across the country not having permanent directors, said David Shulkin, VA under secretary for health.
“There is no way to ensure we are doing the best for veterans with 34 open positions,” he said.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said his goal is to have legislation crafted by the end of March addressing accountability for VA employees.
“If we have problems in the future … then we have a defensible accountability system within the department to right a wrong and not have it happen again,” Isakson said.
Democrats on the Senate committee are also backing legislation, though it was unclear Tuesday whether it would mirror the VA proposal. The House passed a bill last year to speed up firings and is considering some new legislation.
“I think it is making progress with very close bipartisan support,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the ranking member on the veterans committee.