Top career civil service executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs could be fired more easily for failing to deliver quality medical care to patients or timely decisions on disability benefits, under legislation proposed by the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he introduced the measure Tuesday to bring accountability that is lacking in the agency, which more often rewards failure with bonuses than punishes it with terminations.
“VA’s widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems,” Miller said.
“The department’s well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for mistakes is tarnishing the reputation of the organization and may actually be encouraging more veteran suffering instead of preventing it,” Miller said.
“With all the problems VA hospitals and regional offices have recently had and new issues continually arising, we need to give the VA secretary the authority he needs to fix things. That’s what my bill would do.”
Miller’s bill would strip top administrators in the Senior Executive Service at the veterans’ agency of a variety of notification and appeal rights that currently apply government-wide. Under Miller's bill, the VA secretary’s decision would be final.
The Miller proposal specifies the same rules that apply to congressional staffers, who are considered at-will employees who can be fired without traditional merit-system protections, would apply to SES employees at VA.
The bill would not affect those in the lower-ranking General Schedule classifications or other agencies. VA had 448 SES executives in fiscal 2012. The agency has about 330,000 employees.
A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Miller has been pressuring VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to explain why SES-level workers have not been disciplined despite a recent string of preventable patient deaths in VA facilities and a backlog of disability benefits claims affecting more than 400,000 veterans.
At least 21 preventable patient deaths have been documented in recent years by the VA's inspector general or acknowledged by the agency at hospitals in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Tennessee.
Internal VA documents obtained by congressional investigators show evidence 10 additional preventable deaths, details of which have not been disclosed.
While some top VA executives have retired, none has been publicly fired.
Most notable is the November 2013 retirement of Michael Moreland, who had been regional director in charge of an area that includes hospitals in Pittsburgh.
At least five patients died of Legionnaires' disease linked to improper maintenance and mismanagement at VA medical facilities there.
Moreland received a Presidential Rank Award bonus of almost $63,000 last year.
Shinseki said in a Jan. 31 letter to Miller that he already has the power to hold his people accountable for poor performance.
“I believe VA has sufficient authority to take swift action to hold employees and executives accountable for performance,” Shinseki said.
“One of the goals of the Senior Executive Service is to ensure accountability for efficient and effective government. This is achieved by holding senior executives accountable for their individual and organizational performance through a rigorous performance appraisal program,” he said.
Shinseki also defended the bonuses paid to top executives as necessary “to attract and retain the best leaders.”
Earlier this month, a bill to ban performance bonuses to SES-level employees at VA through the 2018 fiscal year unanimously passed the House.
For more on VA, see "Making America's Heroes Wait," a five-part Washington Examiner Watchdog investigative reporting series that exposed deep management problems that are hurting thousands of veterans.