A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Thursday that would grant the secretary of Veterans Affairs the authority to accelerate the firing of employees for misconduct, a deal that arrives two months after the House passed its own version along party lines.
The legislation extends the appeals period from the House bill for employees placed on administrative leave, but enables the department to withhold pay from those workers who are awaiting a case determination. Similar to the House version, it includes a measure to strip employees of bonuses awarded in error and reduce pensions of workers convicted of a felony related to their job.
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The bill would also extend whistleblower protections and codify into law the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection that was set up last month by President Donald Trump through executive order.
The measure, cosponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Jon Tester (D., Mont.), Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), and Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), comes on the heels of a warning from the VA inspector general who visited the Washington, D.C., facility on Wednesday and identified conditions in which patients were "placed at unnecessary risk."
The IG's "rapid response" team found a patient who had been placed under anesthesia in the hospital's operating room to prep for vascular surgery before doctors realized the surgeon "did not have a particular sterile instrument necessary to perform the surgery," forcing a postponement.
The inspector general also identified surgical equipment with "color stains of unknown origin in sterile packs" that made the instruments "unsuitable for surgeries."
VA Secretary David Shulkin has encouraged lawmakers for months to pass legislation that would make it easier to fire employees who have put the lives of veterans at risk. Shulkin backed the House bill after facing difficulty firing a VA worker who was caught watching porn while with a patient.
Current law requires the VA to provide a 30-days notice to employees ahead of termination. The Senate legislation would give Shulkin the authority to fire senior executives during a 21-day grievance process. The appeals process for rank-and-file employees meanwhile would be capped at 180 days—longer than the 45 offered in the House bill—but workers would not be eligible for pay during the appeal.
The lengthened appeals period is likely to appeal to Democrats, who complained the timeframe in the House version was too short and violated employee protections.
"To fully reform the VA and provide our nation's veterans with the quality care they were promised and deserve, we must ensure the department can efficiently dismiss employees who are not able or willing to do their jobs," Rubio in a statement.
Dan Caldwell, policy director of Concerned Veterans for America, predicted the changes in the Senate version would bring broader support to the bill than the version passed in the House.
"At the end of the day, we think it's a great bill and we don’t see any excuse for members of both parties not to vote for this and for the Senate not to move this bill very rapidly," Caldwell said in an interview.
"It is disappointing that it's taken over three years since the VA scandal began to get a solid accountability bill moving in the Senate, but I hope now with an administration that's supportive of increasing accountability at the VA and engaged in the process that we'll get a good piece of accountability legislation signed into law," he added.
The bill has already received support from key members in the House. House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R., Tenn.) and ranking member Tim Walz (D., Minn.) lauded the Senate's "bipartisan agreement" and said they would back the legislation if it advanced to their chamber.