Union officials released from their jobs at the Department of Veterans Affairs to do union work full-time should be reassigned to duties helping patients in the agency's troubled health care system, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs said Monday.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., asked Sloan Gibson, acting Veterans Affairs secretary, in a letter to issue an emergency directive requiring those released on “official time” to return to their regular jobs.
Gibson took over from former Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned Friday after a scathing report from the VA inspector general documenting widespread manipulation of records to hide long wait times patients face to receive medical care.
The IG found “inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic” throughout the Veterans Health Administration, the VA division that delivers health care.
Miller cited 174 veterans’ health officials whose only job is to serve as union representatives. Official time allows civil servants who are also federal employee union officials to do union work full-time while drawing regular government pay and benefits.
The Washington Examiner reported in a four-part series published in February that hundreds of federal employees work full-time for their unions instead of the federal agencies that employ them.
VA is by far the largest user of official time. It paid its top union employees more than $42.5 million to do almost 1 million hours of union work in 2011, the last year for which figures are available from the Office of Personnel Management.
The veterans' agency listed 271 employees who were on full-time release in 2012, including 174 health care workers. VA was unable to give a breakdown of hours or a list of other employees released from their jobs on less than a full-time basis.
Miller wants those people back on the job.
“I respectfully request that you act without delay to issue an emergency directive requiring the immediate reassignment of all VA health care workers currently on official time to health care positions within the department where the need is greatest,” Miller said in his letter to Gibson.
“If you are limited in your authority to act on this request by current union rules, contracts or collective bargaining agreements, I ask that you take the request directly to the heads of the unions of jurisdiction,” Miller said.
Miller also asked for a complete accounting of the number of VA health care employees working full-time on union business.
The Examiner filed Freedom of Information Act requests with 17 major agencies seeking a breakdown of who is taking official time, how much they are paid and which unions benefit.
The OPM report does not give details beyond total hours, total cost and broad categories describing how the time was used.
Though VA was unable to comply, it did provide a list of people on full-time release, including those working in the VHA and employees who process disability benefits claims.
The Examiner's investigation found 20 VA employees who make more than $100,000 per year working full-time for their unions.
The amounts of official time allowed by each agency are negotiated in collective bargaining agreements with the government employee unions.
Shinseki's resignation came days after the IG issued its interim report on allegations that data on patient wait times was manipulated and records were destroyed to hide long delays patients face when seeking care.
The investigation began when Miller revealed at an April hearing there were allegations of a secret waiting list in Phoenix.
The IG’s investigation confirmed improper practices in Phoenix and has expanded to 42 VA health care facilities nationwide.
Miller is the main sponsor of a bill that would give the VA secretary more power to fire, demote or discipline ineffective top managers.
That bill passed the House 390-33 last month. A Senate version of the bill has been introduced by Senate Veterans Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, but there are significant differences between the two proposals.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised prompt Senate action on Sanders bill.
A VA spokesman who asked not to be identified said the department has received Miller's letter and is preparing a response.
Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest public employees’ union, did not respond to an Examiner request for comment.