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Federal regulators on Tuesday outlined interim rules for streamlined firing of Veterans Affairs Department senior executives, a new authority backed by Congress in an effort to clean up cultural problems at the embattled department.
The guidelines, published by the Merit Systems Protection Board, also formalize the appeals process for employees dismissed under the new authority, protection which Senate Democrats had pushed for during legislative negotiations.
But the change has drawn criticism from MSPB appointees, who said they have “concerns regarding the constitutionality” of the new provisions. They said appeals processing time is uncomfortably short and takes away some of the board’s responsibilities by leaving final decisions to administrative judges.
Under the new rules, senior officials dismissed by the VA secretary have a week to appeal the job action and petition for reinstatement or a different non-senior position.
MSPB administrative judges must rule on those appeals within 21 days. If a decision isn’t made in that that time frame, the secretary’s decision becomes final.
Neither the fired employees nor the department will have an opportunity for a second appeal if they disagree with the judges’ decisions. Usually, those decisions can be appealed to the full board for further consideration.
Lawmakers had pushed for a quicker process to punish poorly performing or incompetent senior executives, in response to reports of widespread mismanagement concerning medical appointment wait times and data collection at VA regional offices in recent months.
Those revelations forced the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who acknowledged that he put too much trust in middle managers to handle growing systemic problems.
New VA Secretary Bob McDonald, sworn in Aug. 1, has promised to hold all VA employees accountable and break down bureaucratic barriers stalling veterans’ care within the department.
But in comments Aug. 14, he told reporters that all federal employees must be given “due process that’s allowed them by law or by statute or by policy” and should be treated with “respect.”
Those comments drew grumbles from department critics, who said officials need to fire more managers implicated in the recent scandals to show the public their commitment to cleaning up the department.
VA officials have said they expect numerous employees to face dismissal over their involvement in scandal cover-ups in Phoenix and other regional VA medical centers.
But the new firing rules would cover fewer than 500 top VA employees, reducing the likelihood that the authority will be used frequently. VA has more than 300,000 employees nationwide.
The interim rules outlined by MSPB on Tuesday are open for public comment until Sept. 18.