Threat to discipline 1,000 VA employees draws cheers and jeers

By Matt Wingfield
Federal News Radio

The ink is barely dry on Secretary Bob McDonald’s plan to reorganize the Veterans Affairs Department, but he’s already getting an earful on his efforts to overhaul the government’s largest civilian organization.

Most controversial is McDonald’s announcement that more than 1,000 VA employees could face disciplinary action, including possible firing, for delaying treatment to veterans seeking health care at VA clinics and manipulating records to cover those delays.

The VA is taking “aggressive, expeditious disciplinary action consistent with the law,” McDonald said Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

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“I’m surprised [the number isn’t] higher at VA given what was happening there,” said John Salamone, a former Office of Personnel Management official who is now with Federal Management Partners. He agrees wholeheartedly with McDonald’s plans, he told In Depth with Francis Rose.

But those who represent federal executives say they are shocked by McDonald’s statement.

“There’s no doubt VA has provided terrific service for the most case,” Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said on In Depth. “I’m really at a loss for words.”

Senior executives are being held accountable for failing to meet an unrealistic goal of having veterans receive medical care within two weeks of requesting appointments, she said, noting that the VA is hiring thousands more medical personnel to meet the demand.

While Bonosaro agreed with other actions that McDonald has proposed, including hiring a chief customer-service official and consolidating the agency’s resources under the MyVA banner, she said she was most concerned with how McDonald might use a new law that lets him fire senior executives more quickly.

“Congress has basically given him the authority to say, ‘Nice to see you, have a nice day. You’re fired,'” she said.

The new authority gives employees little to challenge the decision.

“What they’ve developed for senior executives is a rather interesting new process, which is notifying those they wish to fire of a proposed termination and then allowing a few days prior to taking action,” she said. “That doesn’t provide the executives the opportunity to respond to the charges, but only to retire if eligible. So there’s a guise of fairness there.”

She said she also worried about the message such firings could send to other VA employees.

“The vast, vast majority are deeply committed to the mission of the department,” she said, adding that many senior executives were veterans themselves. “The real concern is just the overall impact on the department, on the morale of its employees, on its ability to retain the best and to attract well-qualified people.”

The VA has proposed firing just four senior executives under the new law so far. Of those, two retired before being removed. A third was granted more time to respond to the charges.

The department employs 315,000 people, making those up for disciplinary action less than 1 percent of the total workforce. That’s on par with the dismissal rate of 10,000 civilian workers a year governmentwide, Salamone said.

“I believe he’s doing the right thing,” Salamone said of McDonald. “Otherwise Congress would be calling for his resignation.”

In his “Road to Veterans Day Action Review,” McDonald said his plan would help rebuild trust in the VA, improve its service delivery and set the course for long-term excellence. He drew upon conversations he had held at 41 VA facilities, with veteran service organizations and with two-thirds of the U.S. Senate, he said.

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