A senior Department of Veterans Affairs official told Congress Tuesday that the VA opposes language already passed by the House that would make it easier to fire negligent or corrupt officials.
David Shulkin, undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee that the language in question would only hurt current protections for federal workers.
"We would have strong concerns with any legislative language, such as that currently being considered by this committee, that rolls back employment protections," Shulkin said in his prepared remarks.
Despite Shulkin's impression that the bill is currently being considered, the full House approved it last summer. The bill from Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would streamline the procedures for firing lower-level officials at the VA, which continues to be plagued by scandal but has fired just a handful of senior officials for their behavior that led to delays when veterans sought healthcare.
However, the bill is still being considered by the Senate, and could be rolled into a bigger package of bills dealing with veterans. The Senate bill could be formally introduced as early as this week, but Republicans suspect the House language may not make it into the final bill.
While the bill has not been released, the country's largest federal worker union on Monday indicated it has seen a draft, and said language on accountability is an "assault" against the rights of VA employees.
"Title I of the bill, entitled 'Personnel and Accountability Matters,' is a frontal assault on federal employee due process rights," the American Federal of Government Employees wrote in a letter to senators.
Congress passed legislation in 2014 aimed at making it easier to fire senior officials, but Miller said in his opening statement Tuesday that the VA has been hesitant to use that law.
"Despite years of reports confirming systemic issues, the department has successfully fired just four people for wait-time manipulation while letting the bulk of those behind its nationwide delays-in-care scandal off with no discipline or weak slaps on the wrist," he said.
But Shulkin made it clear the VA wants to go in the other direction, which is to provide more flexibility for federal workers.
"VA further requests your support for our efforts to recruit and retain the very best clinical professionals," he said in his prepared remarks. "These include, for example, flexibility for the federal work period requirement, which is not consistent with private sector medicine, and special pay authority to help VA recruit and retain the best talent possible to lead our hospitals and healthcare networks."