Some veterans celebrate VA accountability bill as a promise kept

Wounded veteran Mike Verardo leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance before Gov. Mike Pence appears at a campaign rally on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016 in Charlotte, N.C.


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 21, 2017

WASHINGTON — Mike and Sarah Verardo had a reason to be angry with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mike Verardo, a retired Army sergeant who volunteered for the infantry, stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010 and lost his left leg. He spent three years in military hospitals and returned home in 2013. When transferred to VA care, he waited 57 days for his prosthetic to be repaired, with no backup, and even longer for a neurological appointment, Sarah Verardo said.

“The buck kept getting passed,” she said. “I was very frustrated.”

Last year, the Verardos heard something in then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign message that resonated with them. He promised to fire “corrupt” and “incompetent” VA workers who “let our veterans down.”

The Verardos sat in a VIP box with Trump and his family during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July. They were featured in a New York Times story about veterans who supported Trump, and they stood beside Trump in April when he signed an executive order creating a new office in the VA aiming to find and remove bad workers.

They’re planning to stand beside Trump again -- as early as this week -- when he signs a bill into law creating more repercussions and a faster firing process for VA employees.

To the Verardos, the moment will signal a promise kept.

“We’ve been fighting for VA reform and accountability, and we feel that it was championed under candidate Trump. We got to know him, his family, and learned how important VA reform was to him,” Sarah Verardo said. “We are really excited. I’m so relieved and glad to see this.”

After three years of attempting to pass similar legislation, Congress sent the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 to Trump on June 13.

Shulkin, many veterans and other supporters of the bill said it will serve to root out poor-performing employees and a perceived culture of corruption in the department, which is the government’s second-largest with approximately 350,000 people on its payroll.

More than a dozen large veterans groups spoke in support of the bill.

Under the current disciplinary process, it takes an average 51 days to remove an employee, largely due to a 30-day notice period, Shulkin said.

The legislation would cut the 30-day advance notice to 10 days. It would also speed up the process that employees use to appeal any disciplinary action against them. It lessens the evidentiary standards required to fire an employee and it allows the VA secretary to recoup bonuses and relocation expenses in certain instances.

It also allows the VA secretary to directly appoint directors to lead VA hospitals and integrated service networks, instead of going through lengthy hiring processes.

After several iterations over the years, the final bill was a compromise between Republicans, who wanted a swift-as-possible firing process, and Democrats, who wanted to maintain more federal workforce protections.

Democrats and Republicans celebrated its passage. Federal unions, however, remain worried.

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, a federal union representing about 220,000 VA employees, has said federal public servants are “under constant attack.”

At past hearings, he told lawmakers that the new firing process could lead to at-will removal of VA employees and dampen morale.

Shulkin has argued against those claims and he said the bill was a necessary fix to a “broken” system that has delayed disciplinary action.

The new authorities in the accountability legislation will accompany a new policy that Shulkin put in place to punish employees for drug diversion, The Associated Press reported.

Shulkin told reporters last month there were 1,500 VA employees who had received notice of their termination but were still on the payroll because of the slow firing process. Of those employees, 300 are pending cases of misconduct involving drug theft, according to The AP report.

The AP wrote Shulkin issued a new zero tolerance policy for drug theft and was taking steps to remove employees found to have diverted drugs.

Just Tuesday, a former physician at the VA hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., was arrested on 15 counts of drug diversion. Daniel J. Bochicchio, 59, allegedly stole fentanyl, a synthetic pain medication, from the hospital by fraudulently using patient information from January to March of this year, according to a release from the Department of Justice. He was relieved from his duties earlier this month.

When asking for Congress to grant him more firing authority, Shulkin used other examples of delays in firing “bad apples,” including a Houston psychiatrist who was caught watching pornography in front of a patient. The VA also had to let an employee in Memphis, Tenn., return to work last month after she was convicted of her third driving-while-intoxicated charge and spent 60 days in jail. And attempts to fire several VA senior executives have been overturned or found unconstitutional.

Trump is expected to sign the bill as early as this week. When Congress passed the legislation June 13, Trump tweeted it was “GREAT news for veterans!” and “I look forward to signing it!”

After their negative experiences with the VA, Mike and Sarah Verardo established the group Square Deal for Vets to advocate for VA reform, primarily the new accountability rules. Now that the bill is on Trump’s desk, the couple plans to watch over the implementation process to ensure its being used consistently across the VA system, Sarah Verardo said.

“It’s great it’s going to be signed. It’s a huge step in the right direction, but we know that the implementation won’t happen overnight so we need to be vigilant watchdogs,” she said. “I’m very hopeful it’s going to be a new day at the VA.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling