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Will a new law hold the VA more accountable?

June 24, 2017 at 3:57 PM EDT
President Trump signed a bipartisan-backed law yesterday aimed at improving the Veterans Administration, which has been criticized for its quality of care. The law creates a new VA accountability office and makes it easier for the VA to fire employees. For more detail on the law, Darlene Superville of the Associated Press joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Military veterans groups are applauding the bipartisan-backed law President Trump signed yesterday to improve the Veterans Administration. It creates a new V.A. Accountability Office, and makes it easier for the V.A. to fire problematic employees, in a department whose hospitals have been criticized for lapses in care for America’s 19 million veterans.

“Associated Press” reporter Darlene Superville has been covering this story and joins me now from Washington. This is kind of a rare glimmer of bipartisanship.

DARLENE SUPERVILLE, “ASSOCIATED PRESS” REPORTER: It is a rare glimmer of bipartisanship. And bipartisanship is easy to achieve when you’re talking about military veterans and the people in this country who voluntarily go into harm’s way in defense of the United States. Remember — you may remember that the V.A. Secretary, David Shulkin, who is a holdover from the Obama administration, when he went before the Senate to be confirmed to become the veteran affairs secretary, the confirmation vote was 100-0, and that’s something that Donald Trump talks about quite a bit when he’s talking about veterans’ issues.

SREENIVASAN: I remember the scandal that started this. I mean, this was in Phoenix. This was a few years ago, it even caused Secretary Eric Shinseki his job. Kind of refresh us a little bit on what caused this.

SUPERVILLE: Well, it was uncovered that at the V.A. Medical Center in Phoenix, staff there were keeping separate waiting lists of veterans that were waiting for appointments. They were trying to cover up the long waits that were — that it was taking for veterans to get their appointments with their doctors. Data was being falsified. And throughout a lot of this, it was found that some veterans actually died while they were waiting for care.

It cost Eric Shinseki his job as V.A. secretary, as you mentioned, and caused Congress to start thinking about ways to transform the V.A. and to help get veterans the care that they need and to get it faster.

SREENIVASAN: And this law also offers some protection for whistleblowers? It’s often the way that we even hear about these things, these problems in the V.A. are either from veterans who are the victims of poor care or lack of care, or people inside who want to see something change.

SUPERVILLE: Right, it does offer some new protections for whistleblowers. The — President Trump is also creating a complaint hot line at the White House, which is undergoing some testing right now, for veterans and others to call in with complaints and that kind of thing. So, he’s putting a little bit of a premium on protecting whistleblowers and the kind of people who bring these situations to light.

SREENIVASAN: You know, how long did some of these employees have this sort of protection? I mean — and who was opposed to this kind of legislation? I mean, is it the — is it the kind of unions that are — these employees are members of, or kind of career service individuals?

SUPERVILLE: Mostly, it’s been the employee unions, the unions that represent the career workers in the United States government, some of whom are afraid that some of the changes under this law would do two things — one, would allow the V.A. secretary and other top officials in that department to sort of target employees for political purposes, rather than actual job performance issues, which is what this is supposed to be about. And the other issue that concerns a lot of the unions is the fact that they see what’s happening or what is about to happen at the V.A. as part of a broader push across the government to change civil get rid of employees. As you may know, Donald Trump, President Donald Trump, wants to shrink the size of the federal government, and a lot of agencies are currently looking for ways to do that.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Darlene Superville of the “Associated Press” — thanks so much.

SUPERVILLE: Thank you.

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