The war on workers' rights has shifted to a new and unlikely battleground this week: the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. And for the more than 350,000 employees and the veterans they serve, the stakes could not be higher.
Let me explain. In the wake of last year's "secret waitlist" scandal - where VA managers rigged the scheduling system to make it appear that more veterans were being seen than actually were - Congress passed a law giving VA Secretary McDonald the authority to fire bad managers and the resources to hire enough staff to care for the massive influx of new vets into the VA system. Were it not for the brave VA employee whistleblowers who put their careers on the line to speak out and expose the list-rigging, we never would have known the problem existed.
Today, the VA is seeing more patients than ever before while continuing to deliver quality, integrated care designed just for veterans. There is still a lot of progress to be made in filling the more than 40,000 job vacancies at VA medical facilities across the country, but the trend is undoubtedly headed in the right direction.
Now along comes Representative Jeff Miller and Senator Marco Rubio who saw an opportunity in the waitlist scandal; not an opportunity to improve access to care for veterans, but an opportunity to chip away at the basic rights to due process that protect all VA employees from discrimination and wrongful firing.
Miller and Rubio's proposals - H.R. 1994 and S. 1082 - would do away with those vital rights with the stroke of a pen. They do nothing to address the current $2.5 billion funding shortfall facing the VA; they do nothing to add new hospital beds or fill vacant positions. Their proposal instead would make every VA employee - doctors, nurses, benefit claims processors - at-will employees who can be fired at any time with little to no recourse.
But Miller and Rubio are not alone in pushing this dangerous agenda; they are doing so with the full backing of a "veterans organization" called Concerned Veterans of America, which was recently exposed as a Koch Brothers-funded front group in a scathing report. Unlike other veterans groups, CVA lobbies aggressively to privatize the health care veterans fought for, gut the rights of VA workers, and reduce veterans' benefits in the name of smaller government.
Front-line VA employees have consistently been the leading voice of real accountability as they provide care to America’s veterans. They should not live in fear that making lifesaving disclosures about patient harm and other mismanagement could lead to their termination.
H.R. 1994 and S. 1082 will only sustain a culture that the VA has worked hard to eradicate over the past year. They will lead to more retaliation against whistleblowers - not less - and fewer employees willing to stick their neck out to expose threats to patient care.
So let's be clear: these proposals are not about "holding the bad apples accountable." They're about exploiting a crisis in an attempt to Wal-Martize the federal government, and the veterans stand to lose the most as a result.
There is a better way, however. Representative Mark Takano and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, have introduced legislation, H.R. 2999 and S. 1856 respectively, to finally deliver the real accountability the VA sorely needs.
H.R. 2999 and S. 1856 preserve due process rights that protect whistleblowers from management retaliation. In instances where a non-management employee is a clear risk to public health, the Secretary is granted authority to remove them from the workplace immediately. It also reduces mismanagement by curbing cozy manager-contractor relationships and investing in management training and strict performance measures.
In other words, Takano and Blumenthal address the real problems plaguing the VA - not the political will of two out-of-touch billionaires and their cronies in Congress.
The dishonest and cynical labeling of Miller and Rubio’s bills masks the reality that they would undermine accountability in the VA rather than promote it. Given this, their bills have no place in our veterans' hospitals, the disability claims process, or the final resting places of our nation’s heroes.
It's time to get serious about VA accountability and empower front-line employees to expose mismanagement wherever it rears its ugly head. It's the least we can do to honor the veterans who sacrificed so much for our country.
Want to do something about it now? Call your lawmakers at 855-976-5397 and tell them to vote down H.R. 1994 and S. 1082.
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