Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson wrote to Congress this week, asking that it begin work immediately to repeal cuts to the agency’s award and incentive spending. Congress cut VA’s performance bonus budget by about 20 percent next year to cover opioid-addiction treatment programs for veterans.
A new omnibus veterans package cleared the House Tuesday afternoon, but it doesn’t address three controversial issues that both veterans affairs committees and the VA Secretary himself have spent the past year debating. That leaves a fix for the outdated veterans appeals process, an alternative or solution to the Veterans Choice Program and new accountability procedures to the 115th Congress and next administration.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee wrote to the Justice Department, asking that DOJ investigate whether VA officials lied before Congress when they testified about ongoing schedule and cost overruns for new medical center in Denver. A new report from VA’s inspector general slammed the department’s leadership for making poor decisions about the hospital’s construction that weren’t in the best interest of the veterans they hope to serve.
Several good government and oversight organizations, along with eight individual whistleblowers, wrote to House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) in support of the whistleblower protections included in the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act. But they had some tough criticism for the changes the bill would make to due process rights for VA executives.
The Veterans Affairs Department paid roughly $5 million to some employees to settle disciplinary actions, according to House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). VA made 208 settlement agreements with employees between July 2014 and the present. The department used monetary payouts to settle 72 percent of those cases.
The House is moving forward on a bill that would shorten the time in which Veterans Affairs employees and senior executives could appeal disciplinary actions and removals. The VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 also includes provisions that would change the veterans’ appeals process, but the bill is drawing ire from the Obama administration, House Democrats and federal employee groups.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee also discussed several of the recommendations from the VA Commission on Care’s report. Lawmakers generally agreed with the majority of the 18 suggestions, but issues of leadership at the Veterans Health Administration will likely be the sticking point in future debates over VA transformation.
The House passed a bill that would change the way agencies discipline and remove federal employees and members of the Senior Executive Service. One provision would put all SES members under the same, expedited disciplinary process that senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department had until the Justice Department challenged its constitutionality.
The Justice Department says a specific provision in the Veterans Choice Act, which ultimately renders that the disciplinary decision from administration MSPB judge is final for certain senior executives, violates a clause in the Constitution. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch says Justice will continue to uphold vast majority of the Choice Act.
The Veterans First Act is a bipartisan omnibus bill that addresses problems within the Veterans Affairs Department. Everything from accountability to whistleblower protections is included in the package, along with major changes to the health care program for veterans, educational benefits and help for survivors.