This legislation would turn Veterans Affairs whistleblower policy into law

For more on the VA Office of Inspector General Training Act, one of its original sponsors, Illinois Democrat Lauren Underwood spoke to the Federal Drive with T...

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In an agency as large as Veterans Affairs, with a third of a million employees, there is no shortage of things to go wrong. Often it’s whistleblowers that point them out, often to the Office of Inspector General. Now a bipartisan bill that passed the House would ensure continuance of a policy that every VA employee received training by the OIG to learn how to report alleged wrongdoing. For more on the VA Office of Inspector General Training Act, one of its original sponsors, Illinois Democrat Lauren Underwood spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Rep. Underwood, good to have you with us.

Lauren Underwood: Thank you so much for having me here today.

Tom Temin: And looking at this bill with respect to Veterans Affairs and the Office of Inspector General, it seems to have provisions for both employees and for the OIG. Let’s talk about Veterans Affairs employees for a moment, what would it do with them?

Lauren Underwood: So I introduced this bipartisan bill. It’s called the VA OIG Training Act, with Congressman McKinley last year, to codify the OIG training requirements to protect the VA employees who report wrongdoing and obviously honor our veterans. So for the VA employees, there’s currently a requirement that they complete OIG training, but it hasn’t been codified into law. So that means that the next administration could reverse the policy. And we want to make sure that staff are equipped with the knowledge and skills that they need to spot and report fraud and abuse happening within VA program.

Tom Temin: And does it say anything about the nature and content of the training itself?

Lauren Underwood: So the training is already being deployed, and we are not changing that training requirement. So what we’re doing is just ensuring that the training includes information about, again, the mechanisms for reporting fraud, waste, abuse, and other wrongdoing at the VA. It offers protections for the VA employees who report the wrongdoing to the Office of the Inspector General. And then the training includes information on how to strengthen the Office of the Inspector General programs, Operations and Services, to ensure that the OIG provides effective oversight. It reduces fraud and protects taxpayer dollars.

Tom Temin: And just a question on the protection for VA employees. There are statutory protections for all federal employees at this point. What would it add here for Veterans Affairs employees, if anything?

Lauren Underwood: Oh, it doesn’t. So this is just a training so that every VA employee understands the current law and the protections that are in place. What we don’t want to have happen is that this training requirement be removed by a different administration who has a different posture towards federal employees. And then those individuals who are interested in reporting fraud, waste and abuse, no longer have the knowledge on how to properly do so, right, and then that opens them up to retaliation, and, other kinds of harmful actions in response.

Tom Temin: Right. So it would reinforce their knowledge of the protections they do have.

Lauren Underwood: That’s right.

Tom Temin: And is there any evidence that say, during the Trump administration, which was a little different, maybe than the current administration, there was any reduction or suppression of that training? Do we know that?

Lauren Underwood: I don’t know that. But I believe that federal employees offer a great service to the American people and certainly to our veterans. And as we do the work to make sure that the federal employees have an excellent workplace, we want to make sure that they are trained and skilled and empowered to be able to fully do their work and offering the federal services and benefits to our veterans. And I think that this kind of knowledge is really important, particularly in an environment that can become very politically charged.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Illinois Congresswoman Lauren Underwood. And you mentioned that the bill also has provisions to strengthen the Office of Inspector General itself. And my experience with VA OIG is they’re not bad right now.

Lauren Underwood: That’s right. And so the requirement is that the VA provides the training to their employees. And obviously, then there’s a benefit for the patients that are receiving care from the VA. Because we know that accurate reporting, and certainly early reporting of issues can save patients lives. It protects their colleagues, and ensures this Veterans actually get their needed benefits and services. We also know that it helps the VA because we’re saving taxpayer dollars. Every dollar that is spent on oversight initiatives, through the Office of Inspector General at the VA yields approximately $21 in return. And so, with those extra resources, if you will, the oversight initiatives ensure that every veteran gets this world class care that they’ve earned.

Tom Temin: And the status of this bill then is passed in the House and introduced a version of the Senate?

Lauren Underwood: That’s right.

Tom Temin: So you do have that senatorial kind of side and any chance in your sense of the situation of that being enacted in this current session?

Lauren Underwood: So Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and John Boozman (R) from Arkansas introduced the Senate companion bill last summer. And so because we were able to get such a strong bipartisan vote in the House, we are really optimistic that there is a path forward for prompt Senate consideration before the end of this calendar year.

Tom Temin: And while we have you if you’ve got a moment, there are a couple of other bills that have your fingerprints on them.

Lauren Underwood: Well the Veterans Rapid Retraining [Assistance Program] was signed into law in June, which we’re very excited about. I was at the signing ceremony. I introduced that legislation with Congressman Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). And so that one has been signed into law. And then we’re obviously working hard on the honoring our pact Act, which has passed the Senate and we look forward to coming back to the house this summer, or passage, so then we can get that signed into law as well. That’s to help veterans living with the effects of toxic exposures.

Tom Temin: Right, yes. And getting back to the one on education, so if people got an unsuccessful education under VA benefits from a for-profit, or unaccredited institution, they can still have that benefit for a proper institution.

Lauren Underwood: That’s right. We know that there has been a lot of students who have been defrauded by institutions that have lost their accreditation or had improperly presented their credentials. And so there’s, throughout my time in Congress, we have been working to help people be able to move forward with their careers and the credentials. And so we are very excited about this Rapid Retraining Assistance [Program] Restoration and Recovery Act, so that these education benefits can be restored. If a veteran has been ripped off by an unaccredited institution. This mirrors some of the activity that you’ve been seeing from the Department of Education, where they announced a big student debt relief for those individuals who had received degrees from unaccredited institutions like we’re talking about really the same general population, but this specific bill apply for veterans whereas that executive action was for the entire universe of affected individuals across the country.

Tom Temin: And given your interest in Veterans Affairs affairs in general, are you watching what’s going on with respect to the electronic health record, and what’s your assessment so far of Secretary McDonough this far in?

Lauren Underwood: Well, I’ve been really pleased to work with Secretary McDonough. We’ve had an opportunity to have several conversations, I’ve been over to the VA for meetings. I’m a nurse. And so I focus a lot of my work on the Veterans Affairs committee on health care issues and making sure that we have high quality gender-specific care on the health care issues in particular, we have been strongly supportive of ensuring that we have full ability for advanced practice nurses to practice to the full extent of their education and training. And making sure that the certified registered nurse and ethicist can be able to practice to the full extent of their education and training. As you may know, Tom, that the VA at the end of the Obama administration allowed nurse practitioners and nurse midwives and clinical nurse specialists to practice without that kind of physician oversight. But the nurse and ethicist were left out. And so we have really been pushing VA to take action. They have all the authorities that they need to expand access to care and make sure that veterans are not having to wait for procedures. And that’s what this is about. And so we’re making progress on that front. And then also, I was very proud that my VA physician assistant and nurse RAISE Act was signed into law as part of the fiscal year 22 budget deal. So the federal funding law that was signed in March, which allows physician assistants and advanced practice nurses to get a raise. So we’re firing on all cylinders here.

Tom Temin: Illinois Congresswoman Lauren Underwood is co-sponsor of the VA Office of Inspector General Training Act. Thanks so much for joining me.

Lauren Underwood: Thank you so much.

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