Trump signs Tester’s bill making it easier to fire VA employees

by Martin Kidston, Missoula Current

President Donald Trump on Friday signed into law Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s bipartisan legislation to bring more accountability to the Department of Veterans Affairs and its employees.

Tester authored the bill with Republican senators Johnny Isakson and Marco Rubio to bring much-needed reforms to the VA by streamlining the process for reviewing and firing bad employees while protecting whistleblowers.

“This law shows what happens when we put politics aside and work to make sure the VA can provide the best possible care and benefits for Montana veterans,” said Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “The VA will now have the tools it needs to hold bad employees accountable and protect whistleblowers from the threat of retaliation.”

Tester’s VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act will:

• Allow the VA to more quickly fire bad employees without sacrificing due process rights.
• Strengthen protections for whistleblowers.
• Improve VA leadership through training and incentivizing managers to address poor performance.
• Expedite the process for hiring VA medical center directors.
• The bill includes provisions giving the VA Secretary the authority to expedite the removal, demotion or suspension of employees based on performance or misconduct. It shortens the process for removing employees at all levels of the department, and gives managers incentives to address poor performance.

In addition, it prohibits bonuses for employees who have been found guilty of wrongdoing, and prohibits relocation expenses for employees who abuse the system.

The process for removing senior executives is similarly expedited, as well as the process by which their successors are hired.

The need for Tester’s bill was well documented by VA officials and veterans themselves.

In May, VA Secretary David Shulkin told reporters: “We currently have 1,500 disciplinary actions that are pending, meaning people that either need to be fired, demoted (or) suspended without pay for violating our core values.”

“Our accountability processes are clearly broken. We have to wait more than a month to fire a psychiatrist who was caught on camera watching pornography using his iPad while seeing a veteran,” Shulkin said.

A VA news release on March 31 said an internal review recommended that the person be dismissed, but the law requires a 30-day waiting period before a final decision can be carried out. It said the psychiatrist was removed from patient care and placed on administrative duties.

“We need new accountability legislation, and we need that now,” Shulkin said.

In a case in Puerto Rico, he said, the department was forced to take back an employee who had been convicted of driving under the influence several times and had served a 60-day jail term.