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(Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – The House is set to debate veterans legislation Tuesday containing contentious reform on how Department of Veterans Affairs employees are demoted and fired.

In the bill, called the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act, are measures to do away with a lengthy appeals process, allowing the VA to fire employees more quickly. Also packaged in the bill is a set of new rules intending to shorten veterans’ waits to appeal a denial of disability benefits.

Lawmakers will vote Wednesday on the bill, said Drew Florio, a staff member for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House majority leader.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced the bill in July in response to a federal appeals board reversing a series of disciplinary actions against VA executives in malfeasance cases.

“The biggest obstacle standing in the way of VA reform is the department’s pervasive lack of accountability among employees at all levels,” Miller said when introducing the bill. “Until this problem is fixed once and for all, long-term efforts to reform VA are doomed to fail.”

In February, the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears appeals from federal employees when they’re demoted or fired, reversed the VA’s attempt to fire Linda Weiss, the director of the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center, after revelations of mismanagement of patient care. Earlier board decisions reversed disciplinary actions against two executives, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, who collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in relocation incentives.

The actions frustrated veterans service organizations and Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who has said the board took away his ability to hold senior executives accountable.

While VA leaders have agreed the process to dole out disciplinary action needs altered, the agency on Monday called some of the changes in Miller’s bill unconstitutional.

“VA is committed to ensuring that employees are held accountable, but a number of the accountability provisions included in this legislation may be unconstitutional and may hinder VA’s ability to attract and retain the top talent necessary to ensure that our veterans are given the treatment and attention they have earned,” according to a VA statement.

Under the bill, the MSPB would be removed from the process of disciplinary action against executives. Instead, the act would establish a new, three-member Senior Executive Disciplinary Appeals Board that would have 21 days to make a final decision on the termination or demotion of executives.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 230,000 VA employees, sent a letter to the House on Friday also opposing Miller’s bill.

Marilyn Park, with the AFGE, said it does away with employees’ due process rights.

The bill would shorten the length of notice that employees receive before they’re fired or demoted, meaning they would have less time to build a case in their defense, Park said.

The bill would also require the MSPB to issue a decision on a demotion or termination in 60 days. If the board failed to get to a case in that time, the VA’s decision would automatically be final.

The latest data from the board shows it takes an average of 281 days to issue a decision.

“It’s terrible for people to wait,” Park said. “But the reality is, if it takes 281 days now to get to most peoples’ cases, and you say 60 days, most people are going to get cut out.”

In response to AFGE’s ongoing critique of the bill, Miller wrote an opinion piece for last week, saying the organization was demanding “to preserve the dysfunctional status quo of our federal personnel system.”

McCarthy, in a written statement Friday, said the bill “represents the continued problem-solving needed to help transform and modernize the VA into a more responsive, effective and accountable institution.”

In the statement Monday, the VA said it supports the part of the bill altering an “antiquated” system for appealing decisions on veterans’ benefits claims. Without reform to the appeals process, the number of cases pending would jump to 2.17 million by the end of 2027, and veterans would wait an average of three years to hear the outcome of their claims, according to the statement.

For months, the VA has thrown its weight behind competing legislation, the Veterans First Act. That bill has been stalled in the Senate since it passed the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in May with unanimous support.

The Veterans First Act contains dozens of changes. Like Miller’s bill, some of the proposals are intended to streamline the appeals process for disability compensation and shorten the length of time – though less drastically — that a federal board has to decide whether an employee was rightly fired.

Under the Veterans First Act, the MSPB would have a deadline of 90 days to issue a decision.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald has said the VA “can’t fire our way to excellence.”

In interviews and speeches to veterans service organizations the past few months, McDonald pushed Congress to pass a VA budget and stressed the importance of other reform measures.

“We created a new law. It’s ready to go,” McDonald said of the Veterans First Act in a C-SPAN interview last week. “We simply have to get it passed. We can’t get it to the floor to get voted on.” @nikkiwentling

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