By Jonathan Kaupanger
It’s a busy time for veterans issues on Capitol Hill this week. The House votes on the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, while the Senate works on issues ranging from VA’s 2018 budget to water testing at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Passed by the Senate last week, the House is voting today on this wide-ranging civil service reform and is expected to pass. President Trump is likely to sign the bill, in fact on June 6 he tweeted, “Senate passed the VA Accountability Act. The House should get this bill to my desk ASAP! We can’t tolerate substandard care for our vets.”
One key part of the bill establishes an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. This would be headed by a presidential appointee and would report directly to the VA Secretary. This person would have the rank of Assistant Secretary. The bill also makes it impossible to assign any other duties to this office.
The office would have authority to develop policy. It also would receive whistleblower complaints as well as complaints against senior executives, political appointees, and supervisors.
And yes, this bill would give the Secretary the ability to fire underperforming employees easier, but it also allows the VA to reduce benefits for VA employees convicted of certain crimes, including recovering bonuses, awards and relocation expenses of failing employees. The Act also improves training for supervisors, adjusts time periods for reviewing adverse actions for some employees and gives direct hiring authority for the medical center and VISN directors.
Previous versions of this bill stalled in the Senate in 2015 and 2016.
VA budget review
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee meets Wednesday to listen to input on President Trump’s proposed $186 billion VA budget. The VA is requesting a total of $13.2 billion for Veteran Community Care for next year. This includes $2.9 billion of funding to a revised version of the Choice program. The Choice program lets veterans receive health care outside of the VA. This funding is being cut out of other programs currently provided by the VA.
This includes $2.9 billion of funding to a revised version of the Choice program. The Choice program lets veterans receive health care outside of the VA. This funding is being cut out of other programs currently provided by the VA.
“The cut they’ve proposed is to disabled veterans who are unable to work past the age of 64 but are also receiving some form of social security,” according to Justin Brown, Executive Director of HillVets. “This will affect about 225,000 vets across the country and I expect this to be a tough one for lawmakers to really make this happen.”
The hearing on VA’s budget is scheduled to start at 2:30 p.m. tomorrow.
Other pending legislation
On Thursday, the Committee is busy with several bills on the agenda, including a change to of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program makes graduate schools and private universities more affordable for veterans. Schools willing to create a veterans-only scholarship are matched dollar for dollar by the VA. The Yellow Ribbon Improvement Act change would allow service members to apply and attend schools while on active duty.
Empowering FED Vets Act would promote federal employment for veterans in all agencies by creating a Veterans Employment Program Office in each Government Agency. Each agency would be required to have a full-time employee on site to ensure engagement with prospective applicants and be the public contact for veterans’ employment officials.
Veteran Employment through Technology Education Courses Act or the VET TEC Act of 2017 requires the VA Secretary to create a high technology education pilot program. This program is for any veteran who is entitled to educational assistance by the VA.
The Janey Ensminger Act amends the Public Health Service Act to direct the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to review the scientific literature relevant to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for at least 30 days.
The Act would also require an updated list of each illness and the categorization of evidence for which a determination of cause has been made.
Also, any veteran who served on active duty at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 21, 1987 would be eligible for hospital care and medical services for any of the illnesses or condition connected to toxic exposure.