Yesterday, in a largely party line vote of 237-178, the U.S. House passed, “H.R.1259 – VA Accountability First Act of 2017.” A bill that would allow the Secretary of the VA to arbitrarily fire workers without any due process. HR 1259 was written and sponsored by Tennessee Republican, Rep David Roe (R-TN-1) who also cosponsored legislation to revoke the Department of Labor’s new rule mandating employers keep records on all workplace injuries.
The bill would give the VA secretary expedited removal authority, meaning any employee fired by the secretary would be out of a job and off the department’s rolls that day.
…One point of conflict in the legislation was the elimination of the union grievance process available to represented employees as a means to appeal negative personnel actions. About 76 percent of VA’s workforce is represented by a union, and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and author of the accountability bill, has complained the grievance process takes an average of 350 days to complete. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 230,000 VA employees, called the legislation ‘a union-busting bill, plain and simple.‘
…A spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the senator is still “exploring options” for a bill that can pass the Senate. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has introduced companion legislation for Roe’s House-backed measure. Isakson himself said he is committed to working with his House colleagues and Democrats on his committee to move accountability legislation forward.
“I’m committed to moving legislation that gives Secretary Shulkin the tools to discipline bad employees,” Isakson said. “Accountability reform is a top priority.” The senator authored bipartisan legislation in the last Congress to expedite the firing process at VA, but it stalled in the Senate after clearing his committee.
This bill is designed to bypass the American Federation of Government Employees grievance procedures and weaken the union’s ability to represent workers. David Cox Sr., National President of AFGE released the following after the bill passed the House.
“The House has passed a venomous piece of legislation from Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee that would undermine the government’s sacred obligation to serve our veterans by gutting frontline employees’ basic worker rights at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Make no mistake – this legislation is not about improving accountability at the VA, and it certainly won’t improve veterans’ access to quality care and earned benefits. This is part of an orchestrated attack on the rights of federal workers and employee unions that’s ripped from the playbook of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
“While we are deterred by the House’s action, we are not defeated. We will fight this bill when it goes before the Senate, and we will continue to make the case to lawmakers and the public that attacking the rights of working-class men and women at the VA and across government is counterproductive to our shared goal of providing the best service to the American taxpayers.”
The AFl-CIO was also displeased with the passage of this legislation calling it a “slap in the face” to the workers at the VA.
“Yesterday, instead of standing up for working families, 10 Democrats in Congress joined with Republicans in attacking workers at the VA. Their support of this anti-worker legislation is not only a slap in the face to the 120,000 VA employees who are themselves veterans, but a betrayal of the promise to treat all VA workers fairly,” said Bill Samuel, AFL-CIO Director of Government Affairs.
Everyone agrees that the VA needs help. They are understaffed, overloaded, and underfunded, but the ability to arbitrarily fire hard working people at the VA will do nothing to solve any of these problems.
The reforms Congress should be looking for would include ones like the amendment submitted by Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH01) to improve VA hiring of mental health professionals.
Congress must also accept that additional resources are necessary to hire more doctors and nurses at VA health centers and to reduce the delays many veterans face in getting the care they need. This would include spending money to merge the DOD’s and the VA health records system.
Another major issue facing the VA is that 20 veterans commit suicide every day. Many of these vets are suffering from PTSD and are unable to get the care they need. NH Congresswoman Annie Kuster (D-NH-1), a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, is working with the newly appointed Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, to address this ongoing epidemic.
“The men and women who have served our nation in uniform cannot be cast aside once they have returned home,” said Congresswoman Kuster. “The suicide rate among veterans is a tragedy and it’s long past time we came together to address this challenge.”
“The president and I have made it clear that suicide prevention is one of our top priorities,” Secretary Shulkin said in a statement. “We know the rate of death by suicide among Veterans who do not use VA care is increasing at a greater rate than Veterans who use VA care. This is a national emergency that requires bold action. We must and we will do all that we can to help former service members who may be at risk. When we say even one Veteran suicide is one too many, we mean it.”
So while 20 veterans a day commit suicide and the thousands that die every year awaiting care should be the top priority of the President and Congress, but instead they are choosing to attack the very workers who are trying to help fix this broken system and get care to those who desperately need it.