Trump to sign order for new VA accountability office
Written by Nikki Wentling | Stars and Stripes 04/27/2017
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday plans to create a new accountability office and a new task force within the Department of Veterans Affairs, both in an effort to discipline poor-performing VA employees.
Trump will visit VA headquarters Thursday afternoon to sign an executive order titled “Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protection” to establish the office. He and VA Secretary David Shulkin will also announce a task force focused rooting out fraud, waste and abuse within the agency.
Shulkin told reporters Wednesday evening that the changes would make the VA more aggressive in finding and removing bad workers.
“Accountability is an important issue to us at VA and something that we’re focusing on to make sure that we have employees who work and are a committed to the mission of serving our veterans,” Shulkin said. “And when we find employees that have deviated from those values, we want to make sure that we can move them outside the VA.”
The VA created an office of accountability review in 2014, following the discovery that veterans died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA and that staff manipulated wait-time data. That office focuses solely on the performance of senior executives and reports to the VA office of legal counsel, Shulkin said.
The office to be established Thursday will handle all VA employees and report directly to the VA secretary.
“It’s elevating the office directly under me so that this is a direct report to the secretary,” Shulkin said. “So it’s taking accountability to the highest level.”
The executive order requires the new office to determine any systemic barriers in the agency preventing the VA secretary from disciplining or firing employees, he said.
Shulkin has cited issues in swiftly removing employees, and he again urged Congress on Wednesday for a legislative change to the process.
The House passed a bill in March that would shorten the appeals process for VA employees facing disciplinary action – a change the VA can’t make without legislation. The bill has been slow to move in the Senate. It’s faced backlash from a government union and some Democrats who have said it does away with employees’ due process rights.
Last year, there was outcry from some lawmakers when the decision to fire two executives was reversed during the appeals process. The executives were found to have manipulated the hiring system to move to positions of lesser responsibility while maintaining the same salary.
Much of the veterans community sees the new legislation, and the ability to quickly fire employees, as a way to end a perceived culture of corruption within the department.
During his campaign, Trump called the VA “the most corrupt” federal agency.
“I think that 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. And so he’s asking through his executive order for the VA to do everything it can internally,” Shulkin said. “But we know that that’s not going to be enough to get done what I want to get done… So I do need legislative help as well.”
Mark Lucas, director of the conservative-leaning Concerned Veterans for America, called the new office a “first step.”
“This new executive order should be a wake-up call to Congress that the VA is continuing to fail because of employee negligence and misconduct,” Lucas said. “Shulkin’s hands will be tied until Congress passes strong accountability legislation… to let him get these bad VA employees out quickly.”
Shulkin said there would be a cost associated with the new office, but he didn’t give an estimate Wednesday other than saying it would be a “substantial commitment.”
No new staff will be added to fill the office, he said, but rather staff at VA headquarters will be reassigned.
“We think that the staffing has gotten too large at our corporate offices,” Shulkin said.
He said among the office’s other duties, it will investigate complaints of retaliation against whistleblowers.
In 2016, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced legislation to create an office similar to the one in Trump’s order, dedicated to accountability and whistleblower protection. The bill did not pass in Congress.