WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 12, 2016) - U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) is cosponsoring the Veterans First Act a bill to significantly improve accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and make sweeping enhancements to benefits and services for our nation's veterans. The bill addresses a longstanding and critical need to provide VA with additional tools to hold employees accountable when they fail to provide veterans with the level of service and care they have earned and deserve. The legislation also aims to provide additional protection for whistleblowers. U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, are the lead sponsors of the bill.
The bill will create accountability while still protecting whistleblowers; prevent employees who engage in misconduct from receiving bonuses; reduce the pensions of senior executives who commit certain crimes; help ensure that probationary employees do not obtain permanent jobs unless they have demonstrated successful performance; and limit the amount of paid administrative leave for employees who are the subject of an investigation or proposed disciplinary action.
"We must continue to restore the confidence of our veterans by increasing accountability and transparency at the VA. This bipartisan bill helps us do that, while also protecting whistleblowers and enhancing existing programs to ensure our former servicesmembers receive access to the highest level of care and benefits they have earned," said Sen. Heinrich. "The ability to maintain the strongest and most dedicated military force in the world depends on our nation's ability to keep its promises to our veterans. We have an obligation to provide our veterans with the best care our country has to offer without delay. It's unacceptable to have any veteran slip through the cracks."
The Veterans First Act creates an expedited process for removing any VA employee based on performance or misconduct, including compressing both the front and back end of the removal process and ensuring that employees are not receiving pay or benefits while they appeal a removal decision. For senior executives at VA, it will provide the VA Secretary with greater authority to discipline underperforming employees--including removing them from their jobs--without allowing overreach by another federal entity.
Additionally, the bill includes significant improvements to services and programs--many of which are legislative priorities identified by the VA Secretary and many veterans service organizations as critical to enhancing services for veterans:
- Increases patient outreach and advocacy with establishing the Office of Patient Advocacy, which address concerns on health care received and sought by veterans.
- Allows physicians and physician assistants to work more flexible hours to better conform to private sector care.
- Improves care in the community:
- Allows VA to enter into provider agreements when Federal Acquisition Regulation based agreements are not available;
- Implements strict rules to ensure community physicians providing care to veterans receive prompter payment for that care; and
- Allows VA to transfer funding to the non-VA care appropriations account.
- Improves services for homeless veterans, by expanding access to legal services and providing for long-term supportive housing for at-risk veterans on the West Los Angeles Medical Center campus.
- Expands and improves VA's comprehensive assistance caregiver program to all generations of veterans
- Addresses the crisis of opioid over-prescription among veterans.
- Expands the availability of orthotic and prosthetic care.
- Improves education benefits for veterans, surviving spouses, and their children.
- Enhances research on potential health effects from toxic exposures to veterans and their descendants.
- Creates a pilot program to help alleviate the backlog of appeals related to disability claims and includes provisions to honor former military personnel.