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Senate joins effort to simplify firing VA executives

May. 22, 2014 - 06:26PM   |  
The Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Phoenix is pictured on Saturday.
The Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Phoenix is pictured on Saturday. (Matt York / The Associated Press)
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Lawmakers furious over the growing Veterans Affairs Department care delay scandals scrambled Thursday to keep the pressure on top department officials.

Just a day after the House passed new legislation making it easier for top VA executives to be fired, senators included mirror legislation in their annual VA appropriations proposal.

Amendment sponsor Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., called the move a reaction to “systemic dysfunction and a lack of leadership” in the department.

“VA personnel should be accountable for their actions,” he said. “Otherwise, the current system of mediocrity and failure will remain.”

The measure would give the VA secretary broader authority to fire senior executives for poor performance or mismanagement. Both the White House and VA have expressed concerns over the legality of the measure, but said they will work on it with Congress.

The appropriations bill likely won’t be signed into law until late this year, but the support in both chambers for the firing measure provides momentum for outside critics who insist senior VA officials haven’t faced enough pressure to improve the department’s culture.

Meanwhile, members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee issued a new subpoena for three top VA officials to appear before Congress and answer questions related to appointment scheduling in the Phoenix VA Health Care system, saying the department so far as failed to provide requested documents about a possible cover-up.

Last month, whistleblowers in the Phoenix system alleged that up to 40 patients may have died because of delayed medical appointments, and that senior system officials doctored appointment records to conceal lengthy wait times.

Committee members blasted department officials for a slow and insufficient response to their investigation. VA officials have said they will provide information as it is compiled, but are unable to meet committee deadlines.

A VA Inspector General investigation into the issue has uncovered similar records-gaming allegations at 25 other facilities nationwide, although so far none of the care delays — including the Phoenix allegations — have been connected to patient deaths.

Frustration in both political parties has grown as reports of wait-time problems have spread throughout the country. At least 25 lawmakers have called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s dismissal, including two House Democrats.

Senate Democrats have largely echoed the White House stance of support for Shinseki, while simultaneously demanding better VA response.

“We can’t accept anything less than excellence from the VA,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “These are not new issues, but serious systemwide problems. … We need to have more than just good intentions.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s budget bill also includes a moratorium on performance bonuses for Veterans Health Administration medical directors and senior executives until the care delay investigations are complete.

And senators included an additional $5 million for the VA IG to continue looking into care problems throughout the system, noting that “such practices may not be isolated incidents.”

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., ranking Republican on the committee, called the $5 million “just a starting point” for the Senate’s work on the issue. He blasted VA leadership and the White House for the widening problem, and echoed committee promises to stay on top of the issue.

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