Why Is Shinseki Refusing More Authority To Fire VA Employees?

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki leaves a congressional hearing on May 15, 2014.

Cliff Owen/AP

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki leaves a congressional hearing on May 15, 2014.

Under pressure to clean house, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki says a House bill that gives him more power to fire bad employees goes too far. By Stephanie Gaskell

Firing a government employee isn’t always easy. Firing Veterans Affairs executives amid a scandal-ridden agency record of incompetency might get a little easier, though.

While there’s a growing chorus that says the buck stops with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in this latest scandal over hospital wait times, there’s also a major push to get rid of several senior executives overseeing VA hospitals across the country. So the House Veterans Affairs Committee drafted legislation that would give Shinseki more authority to fire his top executives.

“If you look at recent VA preventable deaths, patient safety incidents and backlog increases,” the committee said in a fact sheet on its website, “department senior executives who presided over negligence and mismanagement are more likely to have received a bonus or glowing performance review than any sort of punishment.”

A House vote on the bill is expected on Wednesday.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014 would “give the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs authority to remove employees of the Senior Executive Service, whose performance the Secretary believes warrants removal, from the government service completely or transfer them to a General Schedule position within the current civil service system. The ability to remove such an employee is modeled after the same authority that Members of Congress have to remove their professional staff members who work for them.”

But Shinseki said he doesn’t support the legislation in its current language. He is afraid if the VA is seen as cracking down on its employees, no one will want to work there.

“Look I’m happy to, as I’ve indicated, to work with the committee on the language, to provide us the tools we need. In its present form I think it can be improved and I’m committed to working that legislation,” Shinseki told reporters last week after testifying before the Senate VA Committee. “What I want to be sure of is that we are not causing folks who might want to come work for VA to choose not to do so. We need their talent and we need their expertise. If people stop coming to VA because they think we’re heavy-handed on everything, then veterans in the long run are the ones who suffer the impact of that.”

Shinseki said he has removed some 6,000 workers from the VA in the last 2 years, many of them senior staff. Those workers either were terminated, transferred or forced to retire, he said.

At last week’s Senate hearing, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, questioned the wisdom of transferring bad employees. “If you transfer them to another part of government you just perpetuate what they have done,” he said. “Sometimes you got to have some heads roll in order to get the system to shape up.”

Last Friday, Shinseki accepted the resignation of one top official, Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s undersecretary for health. But the media was quick to pounce on the announcement, pointing out that Petzel’s retirement had long been planned for this year. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, who is trying to give Shinseki more power to fire bad employees, called the resignation “the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak.”

So while the calls for Shinseki’s resignation grow louder – he says he won’t leave unless the president asks him to – and the scandal over wait times widens, it’s becoming more and more clear that “heads must roll” at the VA. The question is, whose?

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