A perfect example of this was the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability (CHOICE) Act, the comprehensive response to the manipulation and mismanagement failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) medical centers. The CHOICE Act provides veterans with more options for care and also puts into place a system of accountability within the agency in response to the ongoing investigations into misconduct by VA employees.
Congress passed this bill in an overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion and it became law after President Obama traveled to Fort Belvoir, Virginia for a signing ceremony.
Such accord is almost unheard of on a major piece of legislation these days, but that rare agreement shows how confident Congress is in the reforms included in this law.
That point makes it all the more infuriating that VA recently announced it will no longer use the authority granted to the Secretary through the CHOICE Act to quickly terminate negligent senior VA executives.
VA’s announcement came after the Department of Justice (DOJ) stated that a provision in the CHOICE Act is unconstitutional. Not the courts, rather the Attorney General made this determination. DOJ decided it simply would not defend a provision in current accountability law against a constitutional challenge by a VA executive who was fired in the Phoenix wait-time scandal.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald was very supportive of this authority until DOJ issued its statement. He then reversed course, sided with DOJ and didn’t bother to let Congress know that the VA would no longer follow this law. Instead, my colleagues and I in Congress found out through news reports. In light of the Secretary’s poor judgment, it is even more imperative the Senate moves to pass the Veterans First Act.
The Veterans First Act aims to build on the CHOICE Act’s progress toward changing the culture at the VA by further empowering department leadership to fire bad actors, prohibiting bonuses for employees accused of wrongdoing and instituting protections for whistleblowers. It expedites the removal of all employees at VA, from executives to rank-and-file, and it removes the provision in current law that DOJ says is unconstitutional.
The Veterans First Act has 44 bipartisan cosponsors in the Senate and the support of several Veterans Service Organizations, including the American Legion which is supportive because the bill “will shorten the grievance process” and “make it easier to dismiss VA officials that breach the trust of the veterans that they are supposed to serve.”
There are well documented situations of VA employees abusing their power. We have accountability measures on the books that must be used to address this.
On the other hand, the vast majority of the people at VA are hardworking and do a tremendous job. I am proud of the VA facilities that we have in Arkansas and the men and women who staff them. However, we do all of those exceptional staff members a disservice when we do not hold the bad actors at VA accountable. Passage of this bill will remind Secretary McDonald that he needs to be more concerned with veterans than he is with labor disputes.
When it comes to our nation’s veterans, their commitment to our country is without question, and our commitment to them must be the same. The Veterans First Act reflects that obligation to keep the promises made to our veterans.