Weekly Columns

Improving the VA

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Washington, March 23, 2017 | Lani Short (202-225-6356) | comments

The men and women who served our country, who risked their lives in the line of duty to protect our freedom and defend our liberties, should be honored, revered and treated with respect. As Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and a veteran myself, I feel a duty to help ensure veterans receive the benefits and services they have earned, and that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is responsive to veterans’ needs and put veterans first. Just last week, the House of Representatives passed three critical bills from our committee – two of which I sponsored – to improve the way veterans are treated within the VA system.

The first bill, the VA Accountability First Act of 2017, will bring much-needed accountability to VA by giving the secretary the authority to hold bad employees accountable. When a nurse shows up intoxicated in the operating room, or when a VA employee participates in an armed robbery, there’s no question that employee should be fired. And yet, under the current system, VA employees who have done these things have been able to evade responsibility for their actions for far too long. The vast majority of VA employees are honest and hardworking; however, the individuals failing to fulfill their duties are creating an atmosphere of failure and unaccountability within the department. It’s unfair to the good employees when the VA refuses to, or cannot, hold bad actors accountable.

study completed last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that, on average, it takes anywhere from six months to a year to remove a permanent civil servant in the federal government – often times even longer. For further proof, just last year, former VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson testified at a hearing that it was too hard to fire bad employees at the VA.

The VA Accountability First Act will provide VA Secretary David Shulkin with increased flexibility to remove, demote or suspend any VA employee for poor performance or misconduct. Secretary Shulkin has made it clear this authority is critical to reforming the VA. This bill will also improve and keep intact important whistleblower protections. I am pleased this legislation passed on a bipartisan vote, and I hope the Senate considers accountability legislation soon.

I was also proud to support my good friend Dr. Wenstrup’s legislation to establish staffing, recruitment, and retention programs to enable the Veterans Health Administration to recruit and retain the best employees in the field. The VA has an overly bureaucratic and lengthy hiring process, and by doing things like creating a recruiting database and allowing human resource employees to be trained in recruitment and retention methods, we will significantly improve the VA’s ability to recruit well-qualified providers who will in turn improve care for veterans.

Lastly, the House passed my bill, the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act, to ensure all veterans are treated with fairness, and that they have the same freedoms granted in the Constitution as other private citizens. Under current practice, if a veteran or beneficiary is appointed a fiduciary by the VA, they are labeled as mentally incompetent within the VA system. Unfortunately, this designation results in the beneficiary being unable to legally purchase or own a firearm because VA automatically shares the beneficiary’s name with the FBI. We all agree that people who are a danger to themselves or others should be restricted from owning a firearm, but not all veterans who utilize a fiduciary do so for mental reasons. A veteran can use a fiduciary because of a physical ailment, and the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act simply states that a judge or magistrate – not a VA employee – must deem a veteran a danger to themselves or others before anyone can restrict their Second amendment right. The men and women who risk their lives to protect our Constitutional freedoms should be granted the same freedoms and protections as all Americans. Being declared as “mentally defective” simply because the VA appoints someone to assist with the management of the veteran’s financial affairs is absurd.

I am hopeful the Senate will act on all three of these important bills as we begin to put America’s veterans first again.

As always, feel free to contact my office if I can be of assistance to you or your family. 
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Tags: Veterans