Tester bill would hold VA staff, supervisors accountable

by Steve Fetveit, KECI

MISSOULA, Mont. – We’ve been reporting for over a year about the state of veterans’ health care in Montana. Now a new bill in the U.S. Senate may bring more help for veterans.

The bipartisan measure, presented by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), is called the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.

In April President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan bill that extended the Veterans Choice program and promised to fix a bureaucratic snarl blamed for the VA’s inability to serve the men and women it was created to help.

The Veterans Choice Improvement Act was supposed to clear away roadblocks that left veterans waiting for care and caregivers waiting for compensation. The Choice Improvement Act sailed through both houses of Congress with near unanimous support.

Tester helped write the bill and held it up as a testament to what is possible when politicians set politics aside. With the ink still wet from Trump’s signature, Tester told NBC Montana there was still work to be done. Responding to a question about the viability of the Veterans Administration Tester said the VA was worth saving.

Thursday Tester co-sponsored another bill, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, as a follow-up to an executive order Trump issued establishing an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

It’s another piece in a puzzle that Tester says must be pieced together if veterans are to receive the health care they’ve been promised. In broad strokes, Tester’s accountability bill puts VA supervisors and staff on notice. No longer will it be acceptable for caregivers to put themselves first while veterans suffer.

Tester believes his bill will again find strong support. It’s designed to increase accountability by giving VA Secretary David Shulkin the authority to fire, demote or suspend bad employees. Tester says it will also improve leadership by giving Shulkin flexibility in hiring and firing senior executives while protecting whistleblowers.

“The challenges at the VA are many,” says Tester, “but tough problems require common sense solutions, and this bipartisan bill is a product of what happens when you put aside politics and work together. This bill will make the VA stronger and ensure it can better deliver for Montana veterans.

The bill also adds more protection for employees who blow the whistle on wrongdoing by other employees or their supervisors.