Thousands of Poor Performers Are No Longer at VA, Shulkin Boasts

Scandal-plagued dept. has made progress ever since the deaths of hundreds of veterans awaiting care sparked a national outcry

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin said Wednesday that he has fired thousands of underperforming workers under a special personnel authority granted to him by Congress.

Appearing on “The Laura Ingraham Show” with guest host John Hinderaker, Shulkin said it used to take a year or more to fire unsatisfactory VA employees — and then only if their supervisors had the time and persistence to navigate the federal civil service law’s incredibly complex hiring and firing protections for government workers.

The department also has a collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) that frequently complicates the process even more. With more than 300,000 workers, VA is the second largest federal department.

Under a law passed with bipartisan support, Shulkin said the process now takes 15 days.

“I’ve been given new authorities by Congress and the president to remove employees that have lost their way and aren’t adhering to professional standards,” he said. “So we’ve been able to remove thousands of employees from VA’s roll and set a standard for accountability so that those employees that are continuing to do an excellent job in serving are surrounded by other employees that have the same commitment.”

Shulkin told Hinderaker that employees still have due process rights. But they cannot drag out the process. The secretary’s ability to remove bad employees must make him the envy of his peers in the Cabinet.

“They’ve actually been decades of problems. And my approach as secretary has been to talk about what those issues are and to be transparent with the problems.”

“VA has unique authorities because we went to Congress and we said, ‘This is essential for us to fix the problems of the VA,'” he said. “If you don’t have the right people working and serving your veterans, you’re not going to be able to achieve the results that you want.”

Shulkin inherited a troubled, scandal-ridden agency after President Donald Trump took office. Media reports of dozens of veterans dying on waiting lists for care sparked bipartisan outrage. Shulkin said he has taken multiple steps to improve the department’s performance.

“The department has had a lot of problems over the years,” he said. “They’ve actually been decades of problems. And my approach as secretary has been to talk about what those issues are and to be transparent with the problems.”

Shulkin said Congress passed nine major veterans-related bills last year.

One of them addresses a backlog of 470,000 veterans appealing benefit application denials. Such appeals can take up to six years to resolve.

“That’s because our laws prior to this year had been written in 1930 and not updated since,” he said.

Shulkin said Congress updated those laws and streamlined the appeals process, allowing for decisions within 30 days.

“So that now we can begin to start moving those decisions faster and getting the right decisions for veterans,” he said.

Shulkin touted the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017, which Trump signed into law in August. It guarantees that veterans can obtain medical treatments and procedures from private health care providers in the community if the VA does not provide them directly.

“Well, if you’re going to fix health care and you’re gonna deliver on the promise of the best health care to our veterans, you have to give them choice,” he said. “And all of us know in our own lives that whenever you have choice that that’s ultimately gonna end up with a better result for you.”

Veterans now can use benefits under the GI Bill for education at any time during their lives, thanks to changes made by Congress. Previously, there was a time limit.

Related: ‘Every Wounded Veteran Has a Different Path to Walk’

Going forward, Shulkin said, mental health will be a top priority. Trump signed an executive order last week ensuring that every member of the military leaving service will have access to mental health services. Previously, only 40 percent of exiting service members qualified.

The change is important because of the “national tragedy” of veterans’ committing suicide at a rate of 20 per day, Shulkin said.

“So we’re dramatically expanding to make sure any veteran in need has access to good mental health services,” he said.

Shulkin said he will continue working to modernize the VA system, including information technology that was innovative 30 or 35 years ago but now is obsolete.

“We need to continue to make sure that facilities that were built 50, 60 years ago and no longer meeting the needs of veterans, that they can be disposed of and reinvest money in modern facilities to make sure that veterans are getting the very best care possible,” he said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.