Buchanan Supports VA Reform Bill
Bill Fixes Complicated Appeals Process and Safeguards Whistleblowers
WASHINGTON – Congressman Vern Buchanan today urged the U.S. House to approve sweeping legislation to restore accountability for VA employees, strengthen protections for whistleblowers and reform the agency’s broken disability benefits appeals process.
The VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization, which Buchanan co-sponsored, is scheduled to be considered on the House floor today.
“Our nation’s warriors deserve nothing less than a 21st century VA and staff that put the veteran’s needs first,” Buchanan said. “We need real accountability at the VA – every agency employee needs to fulfill their mission of caring for those who have served our country. This legislation is critical to restoring our sacred promise to veterans and their families.”
Florida is home to more than 1.6 million veterans, and Buchanan’s congressional district has the second-highest number of veterans over the age of 65 in the state.
One of the primary goals of the bill is to increase accountability at the VA by reducing the timeframe for firing or demoting employees who fail to perform their duties from more than a year to no more than 77 days. The legislation also gives the secretary of the VA authority to recoup bonuses and relocation expenses from the employees accused of wrongdoing.
Since 2014 the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has uncovered numerous examples of bad behavior and mismanagement by VA employees. Some of the most egregious instances include a VA nurse participating in a veteran’s surgery while under the influence of alcohol, allegations of illegal use of government purchase cards accounting for billions of dollars, and even the participation of one VA employee in an armed robbery. However, the processes for firing and properly punishing employees are so lengthy and overly complex under current civil service rules that the VA often fails to hold these individuals accountable for their actions.
Shockingly, as a result of these antiquated civil service rules, it also took the VA Secretary two years to remove three of the primary individuals responsible for the 2014 Phoenix VA wait time scandal.
This legislation also retools how the department processes appeals for service-connected disability claims. Under this bill veterans would be given multiple options to appeal claims decisions issued by VA regional offices to help speed up determinations and make the process more streamlined based on their specific appeal.
The backlog of appeals is increasing at an alarming rate. In fact, From January 2015 to June 2016, the number of appeals pending shot up from 375,000 to almost 457,000. Even more disturbing, the Board of Veterans Appeals projects that the number of appeals certified will increase from over 88,000 this year to almost 360,000 in 2017 – which amounts to an increased workload of almost 400 percent.
“For many veterans, disability benefits are critical to supporting their families and putting food on the table every night,” Buchanan said. “The appeals process should be simple, easy and fast. No veteran should be forced to jump through unnecessary hoops to receive a final decision on their appeal after they’ve served their country.”
The bill also strengthens whistleblower protections and strips bonuses from managers who fail to adequately address whistleblower complaints, or who retaliate against the employees that came forward.
The VA has frequently come under fire for its treatment of whistleblowers. Earlier this week it was discovered the agency attempted to silence one employee who helped expose corruption within the department by offering to pay her $305,000 to leave quietly, according to press reports.
Buchanan, a former member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the U.S. Senate should also approve the measure immediately so the president can sign it into law. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has introduced similar legislation.
Several leading veteran service organizations have endorsed the bill, including the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
Buchanan’s announcement arrives several weeks after he called for an immediate freeze on all artwork purchases made by the VA. A July report revealed the agency spent more than $20 million on high-end artwork, sculptures and art consulting services over the last ten years.