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Trump orders the VA to create new office to weed out bad workers

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.

STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 27, 2017

WASHINGTON — Flanked by about a dozen veterans during a visit to the headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order creating a new accountability office within the agency that aims to make the VA more aggressive in finding and removing bad workers.

Trump called it a “bold step forward,” speaking to a room of VA officials, lawmakers and representatives from various veterans organizations. However, while the order gives VA Secretary David Shulkin’s office greater control of disciplinary decisions, speeding up the firing process would require action by Congress.

Trump, Shulkin and members of the veterans community said Thursday that the new office is not enough and legislation is required.

“If this is coupled with legislation, then it absolutely can be a very effective office,” said Dan Caldwell, policy director of conservative-leaning Concerned Veterans for America. “But even if Dr. Shulkin is able to get in the very best people and it’s a well-run office, without the legislation in place it is not going to be as effective as it could be, and that’s our main message here. Without legislation, it’s unfortunately not going to be as effective as possible.”

Thursday marked Trump’s 98th day in the White House. During the signing ceremony, the president highlighted progress that he’s made for veterans in that time, but he also said the 100-day marker was receiving more emphasis than it should.

“Much work lies ahead, but we will not rest until this job is totally done,” Trump said. “Today’s action is historic, but it is only the start of our reforms.”

Shulkin also unveiled Thursday several new VA initiatives that he said would “kick off the next 100 days,” including a task force comprising members from the private sector and other government organizations who will work to detect fraud, waste and abuse within the agency. Shulkin also entered the VA into a partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services that will allow 20 of that agency’s workers to treat veterans at the VA.

VA seeks legislative fix

The VA created an office of accountability review in 2014, following the discovery that veterans died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA and the staff manipulated wait-time data. That office focuses solely on the performance of senior executives and reports to the VA office of legal counsel, Shulkin said.

The office established Thursday will handle all VA employees and report directly to the VA secretary. In addition to employee discipline, the office will also work on recruiting and rewarding high-performing workers.

“It’s elevating the office directly under me so that this is a direct report to the secretary,” Shulkin told reporters Wednesday in a briefing. “So it’s taking accountability to the highest level.”

Trump’s order requires the new office to determine any systemic barriers in the agency preventing the VA secretary from disciplining or firing employees.

Shulkin has cited issues in swiftly removing employees, and he again urged Congress for a legislative change to the process.

The House passed a bill in March that would shorten the appeals process for VA employees facing disciplinary action – a change the VA can’t make without legislation. The bill has been slow to move in the Senate. It’s faced backlash from a government union and some Democrats who have said it does away with employees’ due process rights and would fail to protect whistleblowers.

Much of the veterans community sees the new legislation, and the ability to quickly fire employees, as a way to end a perceived culture of corruption within the department. During his campaign, Trump called the VA “the most corrupt” federal agency.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement after the signing that the Senate was working on bipartisan legislation.

Last year, there was outcry from some lawmakers when the decision to fire two executives was reversed during the appeals process. The executives were found to have manipulated the hiring system to move to positions of lesser responsibility while maintaining the same salary.

There have been failed congressional efforts in previous years to require quicker punishments for VA employees, but those efforts didn’t have the backing of the VA leadership at the time. In 2015, Sloan Gibson, former deputy secretary at the VA, told lawmakers: “You can’t just fire your way to excellence.”

In a news briefing Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., told reporters that “not nearly enough was done to hold bureaucrats accountable” under President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Despite promises to clean things up, only a smattering of people were moved out of their jobs,” Ryan said. “Only a smattering of people were held accountable.”

Whistleblowers needed ‘to have any teeth’

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, shot back Thursday, saying Democrats had previously attempted to create an office within the VA similar to the one that Trump has ordered, but the idea was shot down by Republicans.

“It is ridiculous that Trump is going to take credit for this proposal and point to it as a major success during his first 100 days in the White House,” Walz said in a written statement. “While we support efforts to increase accountability in the VA and make it easier to get rid of bad employees, so long as we have the mechanisms in place to protect good employees… the Republican track record on accountability has been flimsy at best. The majority’s accountability legislation, which passed the House last month, failed to meet that standard.”

Among its other duties, the office will investigate complaints of retaliation against whistleblowers.

Walz urged the new office to create policies making it easier for VA whistleblowers to come forward.

Brandon Coleman, a VA whistleblower, stood alongside Trump at the signing Thursday. In 2015, Coleman – then a VA addiction therapist -- reported the Phoenix VA hospital was not providing adequate care for veterans who were potentially homicidal or suicidal.

After Coleman spoke out, he faced retaliation, he said. Last May, Coleman settled a federal whistleblower complaint against the VA and returned to work there after 18 months of paid leave.

Coleman said he wanted to provide input to Shulkin as he’s forming the office.

“I think it’s not going to have any teeth unless they bring whistleblowers to the table,” he said.

New office cost: a ‘substantial commitment’

Shulkin said there would be a cost associated with the new office, but he didn’t give an estimate Wednesday other than saying it would be a “substantial commitment.”

Staff will not be hired to fill the new office, instead VA headquarters office staff will be reassigned, he said. The executive order calls for a special assistant to be appointed within 45 days to lead the office.

“We think that the staffing has gotten too large at our corporate offices,” Shulkin said.

Several veterans who endured negative experiences at the VA were present Thursday for the signing. One of them was retired Sgt. Mike Verardo, whose frustrations with the VA led him and his wife, Sarah, to get involved in politics and advocate for change at the agency.

Verardo served with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan and lost his left leg when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in 2010. Back home, the family waited 57 days before the VA repaired Verardo’s broken prosthetic, and they had to hold the leg together with duct tape in the meantime, the Fayetteville Observer reported this week.

They’re now representing the group Square Deal for Vets, which advocates that Congress pass legislation making it easier to fire VA employees, among other things.

Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel Entertainment, was also in the room. Trump repeatedly thanked Perlmutter and his wife, Laura, who he said were working with him on VA reforms.

“We have a team the likes of which has never, ever been assembled, and that includes outside people who are so brilliant and so good, like Ike and Laura,” Trump said. “They’re helping us, and they don’t fail.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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