On February 28, 2017 President Trump, while addressing a Joint Session of Congress, once again identified accountability in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as a top priority. The President is right, veterans deserve much better.
There have been well publicized incidents of VA employees who have failed in our mission and have done harm to those I and all VA employees have been entrusted to serve.
If there is evidence that an employee has broken the law, caused harm to veterans, or have violated the public trust, they should be terminated immediately. Instead, due to overly cumbersome and lengthy arbitrations as well as extensive bureaucratic red tape, VA has not been able to remove employees as quickly as we would have liked. Some employees, like the former VA pharmacist who was stealing medications, have simply retired before VA was able to fire them – allowing them to avoid accountability all together. This is unacceptable.
I am empowering our leaders to start taking swift and immediate actions when the evidence warrants a removal. VA recently fired the San Juan Medical Center Director after an investigation revealed unethical behavior that ran contrary to our VA values.
Just a few days ago, one of our Veterans Integrated Support Network directors proposed the removal of another medical center director. These actions are examples of the strong leadership we need to cultivate in VA. There should be no doubt that VA will seek greater accountability going forward.
Having said that, my team and I can’t do this alone. I am pleased that Congress is poised to act on accountability legislation in the coming weeks.
It is critical for us to set politics aside and tackle these challenges together. We won’t succeed with a bill that only partially solves the problem.
Veterans and the American people expect us to get this right. That is why my team and I have been and will continue to provide our partners in Congress with the right solutions that will give VA the flexibility to conduct removals quickly while ensuring due process and reducing the risk of a court forcing us to reinstate underperformers.
Accountability is a two way street. We can’t just make it easier for us to fire people, we must make it easier for us to hire people.
It takes VA an average of 240 days to complete the hiring process for executives joining VA from outside government.We are losing talented people because it simply takes too long.
The VA must be able to compete effectively with private sector health care organizations to recruit doctors, nurses, administrators, and other key staff.
We also need to attract innovative leaders and strong front-line staff to help us modernize VA.
If given direct hiring authority, comparable pay, schedule flexibility and the ability to offer competitive recruitment, relocation, and retention incentives, VA will be able to attract and retain world class talent.
As I have said many times, the vast majority of our employees are dedicated and hard-working people. They come to work every day to provide veterans with the best care and services they can. There is nothing more demoralizing than having a few bad apples constantly distracting you from your mission.
I am confident that if Congress grants VA additional authority and flexibility, both veterans and our employees will be better served.
Our veterans have waited far too long for these changes. No matter how divided we may seem, we are Americans first. And we will keep our promise to our veterans and military families.
David Shulkin is the United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs.