Measure will hold bad actors at the VA accountable, prohibit bonuses for poor performers, protect whistleblowers
Washington, D.C. - Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet this week joined U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to introduce the Veterans First Act to begin to change the culture at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The bill will give the VA the tools to fire bad actors, will prohibit bonuses for employees accused of wrongdoing, and will institute protections for whistleblowers.
The bill is designed to demand a higher level of accountability from the 335,000-employee department in the wake of numerous scandals over the past few years at VA facilities across the country involving serious mismanagement, misconduct, and mistreatment of veterans.
The Veterans First Act also includes a number of provisions to improve services for veterans, including expanding a VA program that allows seriously-injured veterans to receive care in their own homes, enhancing programs for veterans' mental health care, and beginning to address the massive backlog of veteran disability claims appeals.
"For too long, mismanagement and negligence by some employees at the VA have hindered its ability to serve our veterans and provide them with the care and benefits that they've earned," Bennet said. "This bill puts in place useful tools to ensure we can begin to clean up the problems that have plagued this agency for years. It also makes important changes to the VA Choice program, based on feedback from veterans in Colorado, to ensure veterans can access timely, quality care in a manner that makes sense for them. This bill is a step forward to fix the VA and to guarantee we're delivering on our commitment to our veterans."
The Veterans First Act makes it easier for leadership at the VA to remove employees at all levels. It holds accountable all VA leaders, including political appointees, for managing the Department. It removes the Merit Systems Protection Board, which recently reversed the demotions of three senior executives at the VA, from the appeal process for executives at the department. The bill also prohibits bonuses for employees who have been found guilty of wrongdoing and includes numerous protections for whistleblowers.
The bill also strengthens the care veterans receive in their communities by allowing the VA to enter into provider agreements with community doctors and ensuring those providers get paid promptly by making the VA the primary payer for services rendered under the Veterans Choice Program. Other notable provisions of the bill include the improvement and expansion of the VA's Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers to provide all generations of veterans with the opportunity to receive care in their own homes.
Specifically, the Veterans First Act:
- Changes the culture at the VA by improving accountability to make it easier for the VA Secretary to remove bad actors at all levels of the department.
- Expands the VA's Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers to all generations of veterans.
- Strengthens the Veterans Choice program by establishing prompt payment standards and streamlining the requirements for community medical providers to enter into agreements with the VA.
- Enhances education benefits for veterans, surviving spouses and children, and allows thousands of mobilized Reservists to earn GI Bill eligibility.
- Addresses the crisis of opioid over-prescription among veterans.
- Enhances research on the potential health effects from toxic exposure to veterans and their descendants.
- Strengthens programs to combat veteran homelessness.
- Improves the disability claims and appeals process by requiring the VA to launch a pilot program that will cut down the massive backlog of appeals awaiting action.