Tester Introduces Major Bipartisan Reform Bill to Hold VA Accountable

Senator Jon Tester today introduced bipartisan legislation to allow for faster firing of bad employees and strengthen protections for whistleblowers at the VA.

Tester’s bill, cosponsored by Republican Senators Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), streamlines the VA’s process for reviewing and firing employees who engage in misconduct or perform poorly without sacrificing their due process rights.  

“This bipartisan bill will hold bad employees accountable while protecting the hardworking folks who are responsible for serving veterans,” said Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.“The challenges at the VA are many, but tough problems require commonsense 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 VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act has three major provisions. The bipartisan bill will:

Increase accountability within the VA by: 

  • Giving the VA Secretary the authority to expedite the removal, demotion or suspension of employees at the VA based on performance or misconduct. 
  • Shortening the process to remove employees at all levels of the department when evidence proves that they have engaged in misconduct or are performing poorly.
  • Incentivizing managers to address poor performance and misconduct among employees by including these issues in the annual performance plan. 
  • Prohibiting bonuses for employees who have been found guilty of wrongdoing. 
  • Prohibiting relocation expenses for employees who abuse the system.  

Protect whistleblowers by: 

  • Codifying the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the VA and mandating that the head of the office be selected by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, giving Congress more oversight over the department. 
  • Requiring the VA to evaluate supervisors based on their handling of whistleblowers. 
  • Requiring the VA to provide department-wide training regarding whistleblower complaints once a year. 

 Strengthen VA leadership by: 

  • Giving the VA Secretary additional flexibility in hiring and firing senior executives. 
  • Removing bureaucratic barriers to holding senior executive accountable by expediting executive appeals and sending them directly to the VA Secretary. 
  • Reducing benefits for employees who are disciplined or removed for misconduct.  

Tester’s bipartisan bill is supported by multiple organizations, including the American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Project on Government Oversight, AMVETS, and Got Your 6.

“The American Legion applauds this bipartisan effort to provide Secretary Shulkin additional tools to increase accountability and address poor performance within the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Charles E. Schmidt, National Commander of the American Legion. “The media’s exposure of the 2014 Phoenix VA Medical Center wait-time scandal revealed that hundreds of veterans suffered and died while awaiting treatment.  Incompetent and uncaring employees throughout the VA system utterly failed to execute their fiduciary responsibilities and violated the Hippocratic Oath. Furthermore, they failed to uphold the American peoples’ promise to care for our veterans.”

“Paralyzed Veterans of America has long called for measures that bring greater accountability and protects those employees who have the courage to call out fraud, waste, and abuse in the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Sherman Gillums, Executive Director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. “We firmly believe that the culture of a company, organization, or federal agency is shaped by the worst behaviors its leader is willing to tolerate. VA Accountability & Whistleblower Protection Act is the first major step toward reshaping behavior in VA by tolerating bad behavior and poor performance no more. Our veterans deserve it; and so do the hardworking public servants of VA who are tired of being overshadowed by the performance of substandard managers and employees.”

“Accountability must be a two-way street,” said VFW National Commander Brian Duffy.

“The VFW salutes VA Committee Chairmen Sen. Johnny Isakson and Rep. Phil Roe, and their ranking members, Sen. Jon Tester and Tim Walz, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio for introducing a bipartisan, bicameral, and comprehensive accountability bill.  The VFW wants Secretary Shulkin to have the authority to manage his people in a manner expected of all senior executives, public or private. The VFW wants the secretary to weed out the nonperformers, and especially the criminals, regardless of whether the crime was committed on or off-duty. And the VFW wants this bill passed, because maintaining the status quo doesn’t work for those who have borne the battle.”

“Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America applauds the leadership and diligence of Senators Rubio, Isakson and Tester toward crafting this new bill to enable the removal of bad-acting employees at the VA,” said IAVA Legislative Director Tom Porter. “Nearly three years ago, the scandal in Phoenix alerted the country to the outrageous state of the VA health care system.  IAVA and our members have fought since that time to give the VA Secretary the tools needed to address workforce accountability and save veterans’ lives.  We encourage Senate and House leaders to quickly work together to pass the strongest VA accountability measure that can be signed into law.”

“MOPH believes it is absolutely critical that VA has the tools to enforce employee accountability and protect whistleblowers,” said Hershel Gober, National Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. “We support this important legislation and thank Senators Rubio, Isakson and Tester for bringing it forward.”

“I am proud to support your VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act,” said Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight. “This bill, if enacted, will significantly improve the landscape for whistleblowers within the VA. I thank you for your leadership and dedication to not only improving whistleblower protections at the VA but to making sure the agency has the tools and resources to implement those protections in a meaningful way.”

Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative organization that is tasked with protecting whistleblowers, praised Tester’s efforts to bring more accountability and oversight to the VA.

“We support the Committee’s decision to establish the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection,” said Lerner. “The Committee’s legislation takes additional, necessary steps to promote accountability, protect whistleblowers, and improve care at the VA. Additionally, we support the Committee’s decision to include whistleblower protection criteria in the performance plans of all VA supervisors and managers. This step will create additional incentives for supervisors to respond constructively to employee’s concerns, helping to improve the culture at the VA.”

 The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act can be found online HERE.  Asummary of the bill can be found HERE.  

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