WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump signed a bill into law Friday that will make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire employees, part of a push to overhaul an agency that is struggling to serve millions of military vets.
“Our veterans have fulfilled their duty to our nation and now we must fulfill our duty to them,” Trump said during a White House ceremony. “To every veteran who is here with us today, I just want to say two very simple words: Thank you.”
Trump repeatedly promised during the election campaign to dismiss VA workers “who let our veterans down,” and he cast Friday’s bill signing as fulfillment of that promise.
The measure was prompted by a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, where some veterans died as they waited months for care. The VA is the second-largest department in the U.S. government, with more than 350,000 employees, and it is charged with providing health care and other services to military veterans.
Federal employee unions opposed the measure. VA Secretary David Shulkin, an Obama administration holdover, stood alongside Trump as the president jokingly suggested he’d have to invoke his reality TV catchphrase “You’re fired” if the reforms were not implemented.
The legislation, which many veterans’ groups supported, cleared the House last week by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 368-55, replacing an earlier version that Democrats had criticized as overly unfair to employees. The Senate passed the bill by voice vote a week earlier.
The bill was backed by Shulkin, who had called the department’s employee accountability process “clearly broken.” The new law will lower the burden of proof to fire employees, allowing for dismissal even if most evidence is in a worker’s favor.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, opposed the bill. But the Senate-passed measure was seen as more in balance with workers’ rights than a version passed by the House in March, mostly along party lines. The Senate bill calls for a longer appeal process than the House version — 180 days versus 45 days. VA executives would be held to a tougher standard than rank-and-file employees.
The VA has been plagued for years by problems, including the 2014 scandal, where employees created secret lists to cover up delays in appointments. Critics say few employees are fired for malfeasance.
Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report.
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Chairman Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.) released the following statement about the new law:
“In the three years since committee oversight revealed that veterans at VA were dying while waiting for care, we have heard far too many instances of employees who don’t live up to the standards expected of those who serve America’s veterans but cannot be fired for wrongdoing. That stops today. This law will give Secretary Shulkin the tools he needs, and has repeatedly asked for, to hold bad actors at VA accountable. Instilling a culture of accountability at VA is the first step to bringing wholesale reform to the department, and I’m proud of the bipartisan work we put in to get this bill to President Trump’s desk. I thank President Trump and Secretary Shulkin for their unwavering commitment to our nation’s heroes, and it is an honor to stand with them on this historic day.