House seeks to pass VA accountability bill next week

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks at the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, June 5, 2017. Shulkin said Monday the department will be overhauling its electronic health records, adopting a commercial product used by the Pentagon that he hopes will improve care for veterans and reduce wait times for medical appointments. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House will vote next week on Senate-passed legislation to make firing employees easier for the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, moving quickly on a long-sought accountability effort urged by President Donald Trump.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told a small group of reporters Wednesday that fixing the VA is a “big focus of ours,” coming more than three years after a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center. Some veterans died while waiting months for appointments at the center.

“It’s coming back over to us so we’re going to pass that, go right to the president, get a signature,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said.

The Senate passed the bipartisan bill by voice vote Tuesday. The bill would lower the burden of proof needed to fire VA employees — from a “preponderance” to “substantial evidence,” allowing a dismissal even if most evidence is in a worker’s favor.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, opposed the bill. But the measure was viewed as more in balance with workers’ rights than a version the House passed in March, mostly along party lines. The Senate bill calls for a longer appeal process than the House version. VA executives also would be held to a tougher standard than rank-and-file employees.

The Senate bill also would codify into law a campaign promise of Trump’s — to create a permanent VA accountability office, which was established in April by executive order. In a tweet Tuesday night, Trump praised the Senate measure and urged the House to “get this bill to my desk ASAP! We can’t tolerate substandard care for our vets.”

The VA has been plagued by years of problems, including the 2014 scandal in which VA employees created secret waiting lists to cover up delays in care. Critics complain that too few employees are punished for malfeasance.

McCarthy said Wednesday the bill will help improve the government’s second largest department by giving VA Secretary David Shulkin more authority to discipline employees. “If somebody is a bad character, done a lot of bad things they couldn’t survive anyplace else, but you can’t get rid of them, the attitude of good employees goes away, too,” he said.