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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Bipartisan agreement on Veterans Affairs firings needed to speed up vets claims processing

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Photo - House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., speaks on the House floor. Miller and Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, the committee's ranking minority member, agreed yesterday that Department of Veterans Affairs employees who can't perform as required to eliminate a mounting backlog of unprocessed benefits claims should be disciplined or terminated. (AP Photo)
House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., speaks on the House floor. Miller and Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, the committee's ranking minority member, agreed yesterday that Department of Veterans Affairs employees who can't perform as required to eliminate a mounting backlog of unprocessed benefits claims should be disciplined or terminated. (AP Photo)
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Chronically poor-performing managers and claims processors at the Department of Veterans Affairs should be fired to insure accountability and encourage elimination of a nagging backlog of disability and pension cases, the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs said today.

As it is, mistake-prone workers are more likely to be left in place or moved to another regional office where their failures will continue to haunt veterans seeking benefits for injuries or illnesses tied to military service, said Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Mike Michaud, D-Maine, the chairman and top Democrat of the committee.

"If we constantly have someone that's not performing once they've been trained, then I think it's time to let them go," Michaud said in an interview with The Washington Examiner.

 

About 2,000 VA workers were fired last year out of an agency workforce of 324,000 according to figures from the Office of Personnel Management. At the Veterans Benefits Administration, which rates disability claims, 117 workers were fired out of about 20,739 positions. Both figures represent about 0.6 percent of total workers.

"That's been a problem, particularly in the management area that they just move people around. They should be fired."

Similar remarks from Miller drew sustained applause from hundreds of veterans packed into a joint hearing of the House and Senate veterans' committees.

"There are some folks in the system that probably don't need to be there." Miller said of underperforming VA employees during the session to take testimony from top officials at Disabled American Veterans.

"We need to find a way to move them out. My concern is when a person knows that the only punishment they may get is to be transferred to another region or another office, that's not much of a punishment at all."

Miller later told The Washington Examiner that the House committee likely will revisit a bill to require claims processors that repeatedly fail competency tests after multiple retraining opportunities to be fired.

The measure was watered down last year so it required more training and testing. But the provision to force ineffective workers off the payroll was stripped out.

Michaud said he could not comment on a specific bill without seeing it, but agrees with the concept.

It is tough to fire a federal worker, Miller said. Managers often are reluctant to get dragged into personnel fights and so it can be easier to move underperforming workers rather than fire them. That has been VA's practice, Miller and Michaud said.

That attitude is unacceptable with more than 1 million veterans awaiting resolution of their disability and pension claims, Miller said.

It takes an average of about nine months for veteran to get an initial claim rating, which determines the extent of service-connected disabilities and the monthly stipend they are entitled to.

In 11 of the VA's 57 regional offices it takes a year or more. Veterans who appeal that decision typically face four or five years to have their cases resolved. Many wait much longer.

"I believe a message needs to be sent that poor performance cannot and will not be tolerated by the department," Miller said. "I have seen over and over again that VA's response is nothing more than shuffling people rather than firing them."

An recent investigative special report by The Washington Examiner found pressure to move cases quickly often leads to mistakes in rating decisions that can take years to correct, leaving veterans waiting for benefits they earned.

The investigation also showed VA officials have skewed numbers on speed and accuracy to make it appear they are processing claims more quickly and accurately than they really are.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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