House to Vote Before Recess on Bill Making It Easier to Fire VA Employees

By Kellie Lunney

The House on Wednesday will consider a last-minute budget measure to ensure Veterans Affairs’ hospitals don’t close in August, as well as a separate bill that would make it easier to fire department employees.

House lawmakers have crafted a measure that would allow VA to use $3.3 billion from the Choice program for other non-VA care for vets from May 1 to Oct. 1, 2015. VA officials recently told lawmakers that they needed to shift budget funds to cover a $2.5 billion shortfall in the department’s Community Care programs; without the fix, they said that the department might have to close health care facilities, furlough workers and freeze hiring starting in August.

While both House and Senate lawmakers have said they would not allow VA to shutter hospitals or furlough workers, the congressional calendar and politics are making a final deal difficult. The measure that would help the VA out of its tight budget bind is included in the House’s short-term, three-month highway spending bill. The legislation extends funding – which runs out July 31 — for road, transit and bridge projects. The Senate version of the highway bill, however, is a longer-term funding measure, and contains other key differences. The Senate may be forced to take up the House’s stop-gap bill to avoid shutting down infrastructure projects, but also to fix the VA budget problem.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the House will not consider the Senate highway bill, which the upper chamber was still debating on Tuesday.

It’s not clear what measure will ultimately contain the VA budget fix when it’s time for the Senate to deal with it. The House leaves town at the end of this week, but the Senate is in session until Aug. 7, buying the upper chamber some additional time. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has pledged to have something for senators to vote on before they leave town next week.

The VA budget fix outlined in the House provision also would require the department to develop a plan to consolidate all non-VA care programs into one “Veterans Choice Program” and report to Congress on it by Nov. 1. In addition, it would expand the Choice program, which allows certain vets to receive health care temporarily outside the VA if the department is unable to schedule an appointment for the veteran within 30 days, or the veteran lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The new measure inserted in the House highway bill would eliminate a requirement that eligible vets had to be enrolled in VA health care as of Aug. 1, 2014; it also would allow vets access to non-VA health care when the nearest VA facility within 40 miles driving distance does not provide the care the vet needs. So if a vet lives within 40 miles of a VA facility, but that facility does not provide the care the vet needs, then the veteran is eligible for the Choice program.

The House on Wednesday also plans to vote on a separate bill, the 2015 VA Accountability Act, which would give the VA secretary much more flexibility to fire corrupt or poor-performing employees, not just top officials. The bill essentially would expand to the entire workforce the authority of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which made it easier to get rid of senior executives engaged in wrongdoing at the department.

Under H.R. 1994, the employee could file an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board within seven days of his or her removal. MSPB would have to rule within 45 days of the appeal filing. Due process for most of the federal workforce now requires that agencies notify employees within 30 days of an adverse action (including removal), and provide them with seven days to respond and an opportunity to defend themselves. The bill also would extend the probationary period for new VA employees from one year to 18 months, and allow the secretary to extend that even further. Most VA medical professionals already have a two-year probationary period.

The House most likely will pass the measure. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last week approved companion legislation, which awaits a full vote on the Senate floor.

Several groups have expressed support for the 2015 VA Accountability Act, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Concerned Veterans for America.

Others strongly oppose it. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 220,000 non-management VA employees, said in a June 23 letter to House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee members it was “gravely concerned” about the legislation. The accountability bill would “destroy civil service protections and the VA’s ability to recruit and retain a top notch workforce,” wrote Beth Moten, AFGE’s legislative and political director. Instead, Moten said, lawmakers should focus on tools to “reduce mismanagement” and avoid creating a “hostile workplace.”

The Senior Executives Association on Tuesday urged House lawmakers to vote against the bill. Among other things, H.R. 1994 would require VA senior executives to change jobs at least once every five years, and it would limit the number of senior executives who receive “outstanding” and “exceeds fully successful” on their annual performance reviews. To address problems in the workforce, SEA urged Congress “to focus agencies on using the legal authorities that already exist to the fullest potential under the law.”

House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who sponsored H.R. 1994, has said that he believes “99 percent of the more than 300,000 VA employees are dedicated and hardworking, and are not part of the problems that exist at VA.”

But the department’s “tradition” of transferring bad apples, or putting them on paid administrative leave, makes the legislation necessary, he said.