Creation of a special office on accountability and whistleblower protection is the latest in a long series of reactions to the VA patient waiting time and care scandal that began three years ago, and the subsequent surge in complaints from employees that they suffered retaliation for making disclosures.
Greater protection of VA whistleblowers was required in a law enacted late last year and numerous bills have advanced in Congress to limit appeal rights of employees disciplined on performance or conduct grounds. Only one of those has been enacted, a 2014 law short-cutting the appeals process for senior executives there (which the Obama administration later stopped enforcing due to a court challenge).
At that time the VA also created an office of accountability review, but that is limited to disciplinary issues involving SES members and the new office’s reach will extend to the entire workforce, Secretary Dr. David Shulkin said. The first office will continue to exist, while a whistleblower-oriented office required by last year’s law will become part of the new broader office, he said.
He meanwhile called on Congress to finish work on the pending bills to strengthen the department’s hand in disciplinary actions. The new office does not change current employee appeal rights but rather will help ensure that disciplinary decisions “are made quickly and decisively,” he said.
In March, the House passed HR-1259, to shorten the time employees would have to respond to notices of proposed discipline, the period in which an MSPB hearing officer would have to make a decision, and the time employees would have to appeal a final MSPB decision into court, while giving the agency’s position more deference. The Senate has taken no action on it, however.
The VA-related disciplinary bills have been followed by bills seeking to extend similar limits government-wide, and creation of the new office within the VA could set a similar precedent for other agencies.