- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In the wake of last year’s VA waiting list scandal, the House on Wednesday passed a bill to streamline the process to remove or demote Veterans Affairs employees who are not up to par.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, would also introduce an 18-month probationary period for new permanent position hires, after which their superiors can either extend the probationary period or make them permanent.

“The Secretary [of Veterans Affairs] needs the ability to make real reforms and he needs the ability to do it quicker than the current timeline of 6 to 12 months to remove a single employee,” Mr. Miller said on the House floor.

He was supported by Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas Republican, who said the VA needs to be able to fire employees who are not performing, “employees who do have an oath as health care providers to do their very best and to be honest about scheduling and proper procedures necessary to our veterans.”

The bill, which the White House has threatened to veto, was inspired by last year’s scandal where a Phoenix VA hospital’s waiting list was mismanaged, leading to some veterans dying who were too low on the list to see doctors they needed. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki retired amid the outrage, and congressional members have been calling for the agency’s reform, including reform to the process of firing bad employees.

Since taking over last summer, VA Secretary Robert McDonald has tried to reform the agency and root out bad employees, but he has encountered some setbacks. In June, the acting director of the VA’s investigative arm was forced to step down after facing criticism from both whistleblowers and members of Congress that he has interfered in the agency’s investigations to protect VA leadership.

Democrats lambasted the bill. Rep. Mark Takano of California, said it would turn the VA into “the only at-will workplace in the federal government” by reducing due process for fired employees.

“Veterans desperately need our nation’s top doctors, nurses and counselors to choose to work at the VA, and it’s already hard enough to recruit them away from the private sector,” Mr. Takano said. “But by removing basic civil service protections and basic fairness, this policy would make the VA an even less desirable place to work.”

Democrats on the floor raised objections to the bill because it would negatively affect the VA’s unionized workers.

“This is union busting,” Rep. Donna Edwards, Maryland Democrat, said. “Let’s call it what it is.”

“Don’t Scott Walker-ize the federal government,” said Rep. Dina Titus, Nevada Democrat, a reference to the Wisconsin governor and presidential candidate who essentially neutered public-sector unions in his state by eliminating collective bargaining.

Democrats say this bill will mean the death of civil service in the United States, while Republicans accused Democrats of refusing to vote for this bill because they are catering to the unions.

“House Republicans are skipping home early with a lot of unfinished business, but are pushing an ideological bill to punish federal employees,” said Rep. Donna Edwards, Maryland Democrat.

The president’s office said Tuesday to say that the bill would “be disruptive and would hinder VA’s ability to function effectively on behalf of veterans,” and that Mr. Obama would veto it if it reaches his desk.

The Senate has a similar bill which has not been voted on, so it remains to be seen if they will choose to take up the House bill or if they will continue moving forward on the Senate bill.

• Anjali Shastry can be reached at ashastry@washingtontimes.com.

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