The new law to make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire problem employees is essential to reforming the troubled agency and veterans services, VA Secretary David Shulkin said Friday.
Speaking at a forum hosted by the George W. Bush Institute and moderated by POLITICO, Shulkin said accountability legislation signed Friday by President Donald Trump will help the VA "fix issues that we know have been broken for a long time."
"I believe to be able to move people out who have lost their way is going to be part of the solution in fixing the VA," Shulkin said. "In fact, without that, without the ability to get the right people in these jobs and the right people in our leadership positions, I don’t think we’re going to be able to reform the VA."
"So after today," he added, "I think we’re going to be able to change that course in VA, and it will be a positive step forward."
The accountability legislation is the first measure in nearly three years to beef up accountability at the VA. Before reaching a compromise on an expedited firing and appeals process as well as new whistleblower protections, the House and Senate had proposed competing bills, in the meantime leaving in place a process Shulkin called frustrating for its slowness and tendency to overturn firings.
The legislation, approved by Congress by wide margins, makes it easier to discipline poor-performing employees with a quicker appeals process for both senior and non-senior civil servants. It also allows the VA to recoup improperly earned bonuses and claw back pensions for senior executives who are convicted of felonies. And it gives the VA secretary direct hiring authority for directors of VA medical centers.
Shulkin also called overhauling the department’s Choice program a major priority in the coming months. The original program, set up in 2014 to allow veterans facing high wait times or long distances to seek private medical care, is "amazingly complex," Shulkin said.
The VA and lawmakers are seeking a broader overhaul of the Choice program, but must address an immediate, and unexpected, funding shortfall in the program before it runs out of money in the coming months.
Asked about a push by veterans’ groups to reclassify marijuana to allow research into whether it could help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, Shulkin said he was interested in learning from research data, but added that the department can’t do any research of its own until federal law is changed. Instead, he added, states that loosened their restrictions on marijuana will be leading on the issue.
Other priorities for the VA, Shulkin said, include enactment of legislation to overhaul the disability claims appeal process and expanding the VA’s caregiver program to provide financial assistance to caregivers for veterans of all eras.
Shulkin also estimated the VA has a $50 billion capital deficit, adding that the department is attempting to save money by seeking to close 1,100 vacant or underutilized buildings.