President Donald Trump is attempting to take the issue of accountability at the Veterans Affairs Department into his own hands with a new executive order that the administration hopes will begin to address a complicated topic that current and pending legislation has yet to fully tackle.
The order, which Trump signed during a ceremony at the department’s headquarters Thursday afternoon, establishes the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection as a new entity within VA. A specific executive will lead the office and will report directly to the secretary.
“With the creation of this office we are sending a strong message,” Trump said. “Those who fail our veterans will be held, for the first time, accountable. At the same time, we will reward and retain the many VA employees who do a fantastic job, of which we have many.”
“We have also some of the most honest employees, and some of them expose wrongdoing,” Trump added. “We will make sure they are protected.”
Surrounded by Vice President Mike Pence, VA Secretary David Shulkin, leadership on both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees and members of veterans service organizations, Trump touted the executive order as one of many accomplishments during his first 100 days in office — and the first of many reforms to come at the department.
The new office will help VA “identify barriers that are preventing us from moving employees and people that we’ve identified that should no longer be working at VA and make sure that we can do that expeditiously,” Shulkin told reporters during an April 26 briefing. “That’s an important part of one of our priorities and accomplishing the mission that we have to take care of our country’s veterans.”
Shulkin couldn’t yet specify how much the new office would cost or how many employees would work in it, but said it would require “a substantial commitment” given the department’s 360,000 employees.
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In some cases, VA may move some of its current employees to staff this office, as the department looks to trim the size of its “corporate structure” and redirect staff to positions that provide direct care to veterans, Shulkin added.
VA will also establish a task force to investigate waste, fraud and abuse within the department. It will ask VA to look for duplicative functions within the department related to accountability and other topics.
“Part of the president’s executive order is requiring us to take a look at what resources we already currently have dedicated to these types of activities and make sure that we’re not duplicating our resources, and making sure that when we implement an office like this that it’s done in the most efficient way,” Shulkin said. “But this is an important responsibility. Our employees have to feel safe, when they see something, to tell us about it.
The new office will not replace the existing Office of Accountability Review (OAR), which the department stood up in 2014 following wait time scandals across the country. OAR specifically reviews disciplinary cases for senior executives.
“This is a broader office that will be taking a look at all our employees,” Shulkin said of the new office.
Still, Shulkin said he needs congressional authority to more quickly discipline and fire employees for poor performance and misconduct. This executive order doesn’t change the department’s current authorities to do so, but it “elevates accountability to the highest level,” he said.
“What you’re seeing now is the president’s commitment to making sure that we stay on track with this and that we’re moving aggressively,” Shulkin said. “And so he’s asking, through his executive order, for the VA to do everything that it can internally. But we know that that’s not going to be enough to get done what I want to get done, which is to be able to, once we identify people that need to leave the organization, to get them out quickly. I do need legislative help as well.”
The President himself urged the Senate to take up new legislation soon.
The House already passed a bill, the VA Accountability First Act, which addresses some of the department’s challenges. Shulkin said the Senate is working hard to introduce a bill as well, but it’s still unclear if the chamber’s Veterans Affairs Committee will offer its own take on the topic.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced the companion to the Accountability First Act earlier this year. It now has 14 sponsors, including some members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.)
A spokesperson for Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said the committee is working on “bipartisan accountability legislation and… hope[s] to be ready to introduce that very soon.”
Leadership on both congressional committees applauded the signing of the executive order.
“From day one, President Trump has pledged to bring accountability to the Department of Veterans Affairs,” House VA Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn) said in a statement. “His actions today to create a new office at VA focused on accountability and whistleblower protection demonstrate that he is doing just that. President Trump knows that holding VA employees to a higher standard and protecting the men and women who blow the whistle on injustices are essential to building a better VA.”
The Office Accountability and Whistleblower Protection is similar to a proposal Isakson included in the Veterans First Act. That bill had received broad support in the Senate committee but never made it to the floor for a vote before the end of the 114th Congress.
“Today’s action to establish the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection is a critical step toward helping Secretary Shulkin hold bad actors at the VA accountable,” Isakson said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work hand-in-hand with the VA and the White House on efforts to improve care and services for our veterans. To that end, we are working on bipartisan legislation in the Senate to complement these efforts to further improve accountability at the VA.”
The launch of the new accountability office and task force on waste, fraud and abuse is among several initiatives the department announced Thursday.
“We’re going to be formulating a robust strategy for managing VA’s facility and capital assets, allowing us to focus resources where veterans need them the most,” Shulkin said Thursday.
VA is also beginning a new partnership with the Health Human Services Department, which lets up to 20 officers from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps directly treat veterans at department facilities. Ten more officers will provide veterans care at community care facilities.