Congress Moves to Protect Whistleblowers at the VA

Bipartisan Action Follows Reports of Patient Neglect, Mistreatment

Written by Sam Genova, Common Cause intern on June 19, 2017

Congress moved last week to protect whistleblowers in the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs and to make it easier for officials to discipline or fire VA employees who neglect or mistreat patients.

The “Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017,” now headed to President Trump, creates a new office within the VA and tightens ethical standards for VA employees.

The new office, the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, is chaired by an assistant secretary and reports directly to the secretary of Veteran’s Affairs. The assistant secretary will investigate reports of ethics violations and report to the secretary for further action.

The bill also creates new guidelines for the department at large, amending a 2014 law aimed at addressing similar issues. Among the new bill’s provisions are simpler rules for suspension, demotion, and dismissal of employees caught violating department policy and federal law, better accountability for senior executives within the department, and more transparency within the department.

This bill comes three years after a scandal rocked the VA when it was discovered that the department covered up information suggesting that it kept veterans in need of medical care waiting for up to four months and that some died for lack of attention. The scandal led to the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

The new bill seeks to address issues that were uncovered in the scandal. Should the bill become law as expected, it will require the assistant secretary to submit an annual report to the Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs detailing the office’s activities and providing recommendations for how to improve accountability within the department.

The bill’s whistleblower provisions are designed to hide the identity of informant and protect them from retaliation. In addition, the bill requires that any information uncovered by a whistleblower or other department staffer be dealt with appropriately within 60 days by the secretary. If it is not, the information is submitted to the Committee on Veteran’s Affairs for possible disciplinary action.

This bill was passed with sweeping bipartisan support. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, a legislator with strong Tea Party ties, was its lead sponsor and its 39 cosponsors include seven Democrats. This bodes well for future ethics reform efforts; supporters hope that if the bill proves effective, it can serve as a model for other legislation strengthening accountability and oversight of federal departments.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Ethics

Tags: Executive Ethics

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