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‘Accountability Starts at the Top’ Says Largest Federal Union in Response to State of the Union

AFGE: Public servants signed up to serve this country – not to become political fodder.

WASHINGTON – In Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Trump praised the VA Accountability Act passed last June, and asked Congress to weaken protections against politically-motivated firing of government employees. In his speech, Trump characterized this request as a means to “empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”

In response to the President’s stated intent to fire federal employees, and to his touting of the ill-conceived Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. issued the following statement:

“What the President is actually asking Congress to do is give all of his Cabinet Secretaries the power to fire federal employees they consider not loyal to the administration and its political agenda.   Make no mistake: this is a plan to politicize federal employment and allow the administration to hire and fire on the basis of politics rather than merit.

“Our current system makes sure that federal employees are hired and fired solely on the basis of whether they have the knowledge, skills, and ability to do the job; and politics plays no role whatsoever in that evaluation.  The apolitical civil service is an important foundation of our democracy, and it represents a sacred trust with citizens that their taxes will not ever go to rewarding an administration’s friends or punishing its enemies.

“While the President praised the work of AFGE members who work for ICE and Border Patrol, he failed to mention his recent plan to eliminate 6,000 desperately-needed positions at the Bureau of Prisons and start sending more federal inmates to for-profit private prisons.

“And although the President, Secretary David Shulkin, and members of Congress love to point to their legislation passed last June to show improvements at the VA, they couldn’t be more off base. The reality is they are celebrating firing veterans and decreasing the access to and level of care our veterans have earned.

“The VA Accountability Act that the President bragged about has resulted in 1,442 firings at the VA.  Firing American workers is nothing to celebrate or be proud of. Consider that the majority of those this administration has kicked to the curb have been the lowest paid employees of the agencies, those who earned less than $30,000 annually, and many of these fired employees are veterans with service-connected disabilities.

“Meanwhile, only 14 supervisors were removed from their roles. Few acknowledge that the 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA was caused by bad managers gaming waitlists for bigger bonuses, and it was the frontline workers who blew the whistle. And now, we have an administration targeting frontline workers for termination. Only .009 percent of removals have been the managers causing the kind of problems that advocates of the VA Accountability Act claimed to care about.

“Accountability starts at the top. President Trump must be accountable to the American taxpayer for the negative consequences of the hiring freeze, and the budget impasse that led to the shutdown we had this past month. Secretary Shulkin must be accountable for failing to fill the 49,000 vacancies that are the real reason veterans are forced to wait for care at too many VA facilities.

“A recent survey shows that 58 percent of citizens – the highest percentage reported in the last year twenty years – want more government services, not less; instead of politicizing the civil service so you can staff the government with your cronies, and robbing the American public of the services they want the government to provide, please work with Congress to fund the government and allow federal employees to perform the jobs they were hired to do on behalf of the American people.” 

High Praise For The Passage Of The Veterans Affairs “Choice Program”

Friday Congresswomen Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter both voted “yes” on a bipartisan bill to extend the Veterans Choice Program for six months and make critical investments in VA health care, which passed the House with a unanimous vote of 414-0.

“I’m pleased that we were able to come together on the VA committee and in the House to pass this reauthorization of the Choice Program and bolster support for veterans,” said Congresswoman Kuster. “In a state like New Hampshire that lacks a full service VA hospital, we need to ensure that veterans are able to access care outside the VA in a timely and efficient manner. The Choice Program has been an important tool for many Granite State veterans, but not all veterans have found success in the program. I’m committed to working with my colleagues on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee to improve the Choice Program so that no veteran struggles to get the care they need.”

“I’m pleased that today’s bill includes an amendment I authored to improve VA hiring of mental health professions, who are on the front lines of our state’s efforts to combat the heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid crisis. Today’s bipartisan vote is an example of the good that can come when Democrats and Republicans work together to improve access to healthcare for our nation’s veterans. I was proud to support this bipartisan bill, which will extend the Veterans Choice Program for six months.  It makes much needed investments in the VA and includes several provisions that will help the VA fill its nearly 50,000 open jobs, most of which are in health care,” said Shea-Porter.

Both Congresswomen offered amendments that were included and approved in the final bill.

The new reauthorization also includes a provision from Congresswoman Kuster’s legislation, the GOOD Act, which will help improve veterans’ access to quality care by making the Department of Veterans Affairs more competitive when hiring physician assistants.

“I’m excited that this Choice Authorization includes language from my legislation, the GOOD Act,” said Kuster. “We need to make sure that the VA is competitive when hiring medical staff and my legislation will increase pay for VA physician assistants. I’m thrilled that earlier today the House passed additional provisions of GOOD Act and I urge the Senate to act on this commonsense legislation.”

For months, Shea-Porter has voiced deep concerns about failures in the administration of the Veterans Choice Program by the VA and its contractor, Health Net. In April, Shea-Porter sent a letter to Congressional leadership calling for the reorganization of VA’s Community Care programs, including Choice, into a permanent and sustainable program that meets the needs of New Hampshire veterans. The letter called on Congress to immediately address “problems with access to care as well as the Department’s inability to pay medical claims to community providers in a timely way.”

The legislation passed Friday will provide $2.1 billion for the Veterans Choice Program, funding the temporary program for another six months while the Veterans Affairs Committees continue work on a permanent solution to streamline and improve access to community providers, as Shea-Porter requested.

The legislation also included several provisions to improve hiring at the VA and makes critical investments in VA health care facilities. Several of the hiring provisions were passed by the House in March as part of H.R. 1367. That bill created a database to improve hiring for critical open positions. Shea-Porter successfully amended the bill to require that the database include mental health professionals. The database provision, and her amendment to include mental health professionals, were included in the bill passed today (Sec. 208).

Image from AFGE rally for the passage of the VA Choice Program

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal union which also represents civilian employees inside the VA, is “encouraged” by the passage of this bill.

“Today Congressional leaders came together, put party politics aside, and passed legislation that is vital to the future of the VA. We are very encouraged by the passing of this bill, which will allow additional investment in the VA, and allow the VA to manage non-VA care better than the broken Choice program,” American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr.

“While we still stand with the veterans who overwhelmingly tell us they want the VA for their healthcare, it’s important that those who cannot receive care at the VA have outside options. The VA Choice and Quality Employment Act isn’t a cure-all for the VA or the Choice program, but is a temporary fix that will allow more veterans access to the care they need,” Cox added.

Cox also highlighted that many of the problems plaguing the VA come from years of neglect and austere cuts to funding.

“But after years of starving the VA’s funding for the Choice program, it’s the investment in veterans’ first preference for medical care that has us most in support of this legislation.”

“Infusing our nation’s largest healthcare system with $1.4 billion for hiring, workforce improvements, and the authorization of 28 new leases that increase the department’s internal capacity to deliver care will make a huge difference at a time when the VA is facing nearly 50,000 vacancies nationwide. With the VA now more able to gather data in recruitment, retention, and staffing, there will finally be some transparency – but it’s not enough.”

After praise the passage of the VA choice program, AFGE is also calling on Congress to take action of similar legislation to address the staffing needs of the VA.

“We at AFGE believe that for true transparency, and a fully-operational department, Congress must pass Rep. Anthony Brown’s bill, the VA Staffing and Vacancies Transparency Act of 2017. If Rep. Brown’s bill is passed, we will finally have transparency in the VA, and the ability to identify the necessary hires the department needs. That in turn will allow more veterans to receive more access to the only healthcare system created for veterans, and by veterans in this country.”

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