A year after enactment of a law revamping disciplinary policies at the VA there was consensus at a House hearing that the department has been taking more disciplinary actions since the law’s enactment, but not on whether the law has been a success.
VA statistics show that the rate of major discipline – including firings, demotions and suspensions of 14 days or more – has nearly doubled. Of the more than 2,000 in calendar year 2017, more than 1,300 occurred in the last six months. That rate has held about steady so far this year, with nearly 1,200 through June.
The law was one of a series in response to the scandal over record-keeping at some VA facilities that made it appear that patients were being seen more quickly than was the case. It reduced the period of notice, response and final agency action to 15 working days; specified that in appeals of both conduct- and performance-related discipline before the MSPB, the department needs to meet only the lower evidence standard generally applying only in the former type; required that the MSPB either accept or reject the agency’s choice of penalties entirely; and raised the legal standards for employees who appeal further into federal court.
“The only way to bring true accountability to VA is to create a culture where employees want to come to work and serve veterans. This will only happen when good work is consistently rewarded and when it’s clear the department won’t tolerate employees who do not live up to the high standards required of public servants,” said Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.
But the AFGE union, which represents most VA employees, said the law “has turned out to be the most counterproductive VA law ever enacted.” While the change was largely targeted at management-level officials responsible for the scandal, in practice it has had a “disproportionate impact on VA’s lowest paid and veteran workforce,” it said. Of the nearly 1,100 disciplined in the first five months of this year, only 15 were supervisors and many were in positions such as housekeeping aides, it said.
“Instead of using the legislation to hold VA management accountable so that real change can be made, the administration has instead systematically purged lower level workers and whistleblowers,” said ranking Democrat Mark Takano of California.
VA officials, though, presented data showing that the rate of discipline against GS employees below grade 10 and non-supervisory wage grade employees is about the same as it was prior to enactment.