President Trump signed a law Friday that makes it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire employees for wrongdoing and adds protections for whistleblowers in the VA.
Responding to an Obama-era scandal in which veterans died waiting for doctor’s appointments, Mr. Trump said the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 will “make sure that the scandal we suffered so recently never, ever happens again.”
“What happened was a national disgrace, and yet some of the employees involved remained on the payrolls,” Mr. Trump said. “Our veterans have fulfilled their duty to this nation, and now we must fulfill our duty to them.”
The president signed the bill into law in the East Room, at a White House ceremony attended by dozens of veterans, family members and lawmakers. Among them was retired Army Sgt. Michael Verardo of North Carolina, who lost two limbs in 2010 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
Mr. Verardo said he was prepared when he enlisted for injury or death. But when he returned home, he had to wait 57 days for the VA to fix his prosthetic leg, and more than three years for the agency to modify his home so he could safely live there.
“What I was not prepared for was coming home to a broken VA system,” Mr. Verardo told the audience. “Today is a new day. This administration has fulfilled its promise that the veteran is empowered and the veteran is in charge of his or her own care.”
The law had bipartisan support in Congress but faced opposition from unions representing VA employees, who warned that the new provisions could make it easier for management to retaliate against employees for political reasons.
VA Secretary David Shulkin cited the examples of a VA employee who kept her job after three convictions for drunken driving, and another who was watching pornography while treating a patient. He said the law “is going to make it easier and quicker for us to hold our employees accountable.”
“Veterans deserve a VA they can trust and take pride in,” Mr. Shulkin said. “Employees who act contrary to our core values erode that trust.”
The president, referring to unions’ opposition, said “this was not an easy one.”
“We got it done. It’s a reform that I campaigned on, and now I am thrilled to be able to sign that promise into law,” Mr. Trump said.
The VA is the government’s second-largest Cabinet agency, with approximately 350,000 employees. Mr. Shulkin has complained that the current disciplinary process has averaged 51 days to remove an employee, primarily due to a 30-day notice period.The law cuts the 30-day notice to 10 days and speeds up the appeal process. It also lowers the evidentiary standards required to fire an employee, and allows the VA secretary to rescind employee bonuses and relocation expenses in some cases.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said the VA’s mission has been “put at risk by the continued corruption, incompetence, and scandal of a few bad employees.”
“With President Trump’s signature today, the VA Accountability Act will give the Secretary of Veterans Affairs the authority to remove bad VA employees and hire the best personnel to fulfill the promise we made as a nation to provide for the health and well-being of our veterans,” he said.