05.11.17

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Helps Lead Introduction of Major Bipartisan Legislation to Reform the VA and Protect Whistleblowers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) today joined Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jon Tester (D-MT), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Bill Nelson (D-FL), John McCain (R-AZ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) in introducing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.

The bipartisan legislation would reform the VA by better protecting whistleblowers and providing the VA Secretary with stronger measures to discipline and hold bad employees accountable.

“We must work across party lines to build a VA that protects whistleblowers, many of whom are veterans working to improve the system. We also need to make sure we are empowering the VA to hold bad actors accountable because our veterans deserve nothing less than high quality service and care,” said Senator Baldwin. “I’m proud to stand with Senators Rubio, Isakson and Tester and our entire bipartisan coalition as we push these VA reforms forward.”

“As we have viewed the problems of the VA over the recent past, several trends become clear. The guilty are not held accountable. Those who speak out against the system, be they employee or deeply concerned stakeholders, are vilified and shouted down. There is an institutional predilection against change and against responsibility,” said The American Legion, Department of Wisconsin Commander Daniel Seehafer of Horicon, Wisconsin. “Whistleblowers will only be free from fears to come forward when they see consequences implemented against leaders who have harassed those who have already spoken out. There should be no place in VA for those who would harass whistleblowers and legislation like the proposed Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act will help to ensure protection for those who earnestly seek reforms. The American Legion supports the passage of this legislation.”

“To fully reform the VA and provide our nation’s veterans with the quality care they were promised and deserve, we must ensure the department can efficiently dismiss employees who are not able or willing to do their jobs,” said Senator Rubio. “This legislation would improve on the law we enacted in 2014, and I’m grateful to Chairman Isakson and Ranking Member Tester for working with us to craft a bill that will protect whistleblowers and the many VA employees who are passionate about caring for our veterans, while also empowering the VA to hold bad employees accountable. We must make real changes that put the well-being of our servicemembers before the best interests of bureaucrats.”

“When the VA cannot hold bad actors accountable, everyone loses,” said Senator Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Taxpayer dollars are wasted on employees who are not fully committed to helping our veterans. Other employees at the VA suffer because they are forced to work alongside or take direction from delinquent individuals. Most egregiously, our veterans suffer because the people responsible for caring for them are putting themselves first – not our veterans. I am proud to introduce this bipartisan measure that will help create a culture of accountability at the VA by giving Secretary Shulkin the tools necessary to discipline bad employees in a timely manner while protecting whistleblowers from the threat of retaliation and ensuring the quality of care that our veterans receive at the VA.”

“This bipartisan bill will hold bad employees accountable while protecting the hardworking folks who care for our veterans,” said Senator 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. I want to thank Chairman Isakson and Senator Rubio for working hard to make the VA stronger and ensure it can better deliver for veterans.”

VA Secretary David Shulkin has repeatedly expressed support for accountability legislation, and Deputy Under Secretary Dr. Carolyn Clancy reiterated this position during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on preventing veteran suicide.

Specifically, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act would:

  • Authorize the secretary to reprimand, suspend, involuntarily reassign, demote, or remove a covered individual from a senior executive service position, including removal from civil service, if the secretary determines that their misconduct or performance warrants such an action, subject to a VA-internal grievance process established by the secretary that must be completed within 21 days.

  • Authorize the secretary to remove, demote, or suspend for longer than 14 days without pay, subject to an appeal of their removal or demotion to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) for most non-senior executive service (SES) employees. The MSBP would then have 180 days to complete an expedited appeal and render a final decision, subject to judicial review by the U.S. Federal Circuit.

  • Protect whistleblowers from retaliation by not allowing the secretary to use this authority to fire employees who have filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC). The proposal would also establish an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection for employees to bring to light major problems at the VA without losing their job or facing retaliation.

  • Streamline authority for the secretary to rescind an employee’s bonus or relocation expense reimbursement if the secretary deems it appropriate, and allow reduction to an SES employee’s retirement pension upon their conviction of a felony related to work performance.

  • Require the VA to provide periodic training to each supervisor on the rights of whistleblowers; how to address a report by an employee of a hostile work environment, reprisal, or harassment; how to effectively motivate, manage, and reward employees; and how to effectively manage employees who are performing at an unacceptable level.

  • Authorize the secretary to directly appoint individuals to the positions of Medical Center Director and Director of Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) if they have demonstrated ability in the medical profession, health care administration, or health care fiscal management.

  • Require the VA to provide reports to Congress on employee morale and the types of administrative action taken against employees and their effectiveness in disciplining employees.