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Amid VA scandals, House eases rules for firing top department executives

May. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The Veterans Affairs building is pictured May 19 in Washington, D.C. (Karen Bleier / Getty Images)
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Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman's nearly $9,400 bonus for last year has been rescinded. (Michael Chow / AP)

Shinseki rescinds bonus of Phoenix VA director

PHOENIX — Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman’s nearly $9,400 bonus for last year has been rescinded.

Helman was placed on administrative leave on May 1 amid investigations into extreme wait times and scheduling procedures that allegedly resulted in the deaths of at least 40 veterans.

Federal investigators probing the claims say they have so far not linked any patient deaths in Phoenix to delayed care. A report is due in August.

VA officials in Washington say Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki exercised his authority Wednesday to rescind Helman’s performance award for fiscal year 2013.

Last year, Helman was awarded a $9,345 bonus in addition to her $169,000 annual salary.

A VA spokesman say the bonus had been awarded through an administrative error.

Spurred by allegations of mismanagement and scandal at numerous Veterans Affairs facilities, House members on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a measure giving the department’s secretary more power to fire underperforming employees.

Republican leaders in the House have been pushing the legislation for months, insisting that VA managers are not being held accountable for a range of health care and benefits delivery problems.

But the widening care-delay scandals facing the department added new urgency to the measure, which would allow the VA secretary to fire senior executives more easily, bypassing current federal employment protections.

“It’s easier for someone to get a bonus than it is for someone to get some type of discipline at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said bill sponsor Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki “is being held back by a failed civil service system. If this becomes law, he and his successors will have no excuse,” Miller said.

VA officials have maintained that poorly performing employees are held accountable, with more than 6,000 fired or disciplined over the last two years. But that figure does not include any individuals involved with the recent scandals over wait times, which have put the department under renewed scrutiny.

Last month, whistleblowers in the Phoenix VA Health Care system alleged that up to 40 patients may have died because of delayed medical appointments, and that senior system officials doctored appointment records to conceal lengthy wait times.

A VA inspector general investigation into the issue has uncovered similar records-gaming allegations at 25 other facilities nationwide, although so far none of the care delays — include the Phoenix allegations — have been connected to patient deaths.

The scandal has prompted calls for Shinseki’s resignation from the American Legion and at least 25 lawmakers, mostly Republicans. On Wednesday, just a few hours before the House vote, President Obama offered renewed support for Shinseki, saying he’s confident the secretary is addressing the problems but also demanding quick solutions from VA leadership.

Both the White House and Shinseki have offered partial support for the accountability measure, saying they understand the goal and are willing to work with lawmakers to refine the legislation.

Members of the Senior Executives Association staunchly opposed the idea, saying in a statement that “firing career senior executives does not address the issue of access to care for veterans” and accusing supporters of dumping the “innocent until proven guilty” philosophy.

House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also objected to the idea, both in the way it was fast-tracked in response to the VA allegations and how it could transform the department.

“All of us need to be for accountability, but none of us ought to be for turning a civil service system ... into one that allows, for no reason, to turn senior executive into at-will employees,” he said.

Despite his objections, the measure passed by a 390-33 vote.

Only about 400 VA employees would be affected by the legislation, but supporters argued it provides a critical reminder to public servants that they can be held to high performance standards.

So far, the proposal has not drawn much support from Democrats in the Senate, presenting an unclear path for the legislation to become law.

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