OPINION: New legislation will scapegoat working veterans for leadership failures, harming VA care

American Federation of Government Employees

As an Army veteran who receives health care from the VA, I’m proud that my union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), represents over 291,000 workers who have dedicated their lives to caring for their fellow veterans and ensuring America meets its obligations to those who have borne the battle.

I’m especially proud that over a third of those workers are, like me, veterans themselves — American patriots who are wearing their second uniform in service to their country.

These veterans understand the unique issues faced by those who are returning from combat. They know firsthand the complex combination of mental and physical complications faced by our service members. And they are dedicated to delivering on the VA’s mission of providing exceptional health care that improves our veterans’ health and well-being.

Indeed, because of the work of these hundreds of thousands of civil servants, VA hospitals outperform non-VA hospitals on all 10 core patient satisfaction metrics in a nationwide survey conducted by Medicare.

The fact that veterans know they can connect with providers who are veterans themselves, who understand their unique needs, is one reason why 90 percent of veterans trust the VA to deliver their health care.

AFGE members working at the VA are also the reason why, in a systematic review of 37 separate studies on the quality of VA care, the VA consistently performs as well or better than private-sector hospitals. That means lives saved and wasteful spending avoided.

This impressive record of accomplishments by public servants at VA is even more remarkable when you realize the severe staffing crisis that has plagued the agency in recent years. A 2022 inspector general report found that every single VHA facility surveyed reported at least one severe occupational staffing shortage — a 22 percent jump from just a year earlier.

A survey of front-line employees conducted by AFGE painted an even darker picture, with 88 percent of respondents reporting that their facility needed additional clinical staff.

Indeed, the VA had around 50,000 employee vacancies even before the passage of the PACT Act in 2022 that expanded benefits for around 6.2 million veterans. While our union fully supports this needed expansion of benefits, we know that the additional workload will exacerbate problems in a health care system already critically understaffed.

In response to this reality, Americans should expect Congress and the White House to be hard at work crafting legislation and policy aimed at filling vacancies across the system as quickly as possible, ensuring the VA is ready to fulfill our nation’s obligation to provide timely, high-quality care to our veterans.

Instead, a group of conservative politicians have introduced legislation that would push thousands of civil servants at the VA — many of them working veterans themselves — out the door of an agency already struggling to recruit, hire, train and retain staff.

This new bill is an attempt to revive parts of a 2017 law drafted in response to a VA managers’ scandal nearly a decade ago. That law was supposed to help the VA hold poor leadership accountable, but it was an epic failure.

Instead of targeting the folks at the top who were hiding information from federal regulators and veterans alike to pad their bonuses, those same VA leaders used their new authorities to fire low-level veterans working in food service, as housekeepers, and as claims processors, often for trifling offenses or to settle personal scores.

Rather than addressing the failures of agency leadership and management, VA systematically used the new “accountability” procedures to target the same veterans working front-line jobs that make the VA a great place for veterans to receive care.

Not only did this legislation fail to achieve its stated purpose, federal courts in numerous cases ruled key pieces of it illegal, federal arbitrators and the Federal Labor Relations Authority ruled that it illegally violated the VA’s union contract with AFGE, and the Merit Systems Protection Board ruled that the law as written could not be used against broad categories of VA employees.

The law was subject to so many legal and administrative challenges that the VA earlier this year announced they would no longer use the law’s firing authorities.

These failures and legal obstacles should be a sign to lawmakers that it’s time to abandon this fiasco and restore rational policies based on civil service principles. Instead, a handful of politicians are doubling down on the debacle, apparently content to enable VA management to scapegoat working veterans for the failures of political and agency leaders.

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At a time when the VA is struggling to fill tens of thousands of vacancies, these politicians want to rush low-level veterans who have dedicated their entire lives to serving our country out the door, exacerbating the VA’s staffing problem, and making it more difficult for veterans to get the timely, quality care they deserve from the VA.

It’s morally wrong, and it’s a proven failure. And the consequences of their failure will hurt America’s veterans and military families alike. I urge all Americans who care about our nation’s heroes to oppose this legislation.

(Everett Kelley is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents more than 750,000 federal and DC government employees. This article was originally published in The Hill.)

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