Hartzler: ‘Our veterans deserve better’
WASHINGTON—Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, on Wednesday voted to provide better accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), protect whistleblowers from retaliation, and reform the VA’s disability benefits appeal process.
“The VA has been failing our nation’s veterans,” Hartzler asserted. “Whether it is enormous wait times, broken appeal processes, or misconduct by employees, one thing is clear: our veterans deserve better. This bill allows the VA to field its ‘A’ team and better serve those who served us.”
The House debated and passed H.R. 5620, the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016, which institutes a number of reforms within the VA from making it easier to reprimand and remove bad actors to strengthening whistleblower protections to streamlining the appeal process.
“The current appeals process is broken and has hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting for decisions,” Hartzler continued. “We put the decision making back into the veterans’ hands, allowing them to choose the best option for them when pursuing their appeal. This will make life easier for countless veterans and allow the VA Secretary to manage the VA in a manner that will place our veterans first, where they belong.”
According to the Administration, as of June 1, 2016, there were almost 457,000 appeals pending at some point in the process, with veterans waiting an average of at least 3 years for a decision. Moreover, without reform, the VA projects the number of pending appeals will soar to more than 2.17 million by the end of 2027, which will require a significant increase in resources to address and result in veterans continuing to wait years for an appeals decision.
This legislation reforms the VA’s appeals process for disability benefits by allowing veterans to waive a hearing and limit the introduction of new evidence. Additionally, veterans would have the option of having their appeals decided in the regional office or appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
H.R. 5620 also institutes necessary reforms at the VA by providing the Secretary increased flexibility to remove and VA employee for performance or misconduct, while also strengthening whistleblower protections, including restricting bonus awards for supervisors who retaliate against whistleblowers.
The bill also improves accountability provisions from the “Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014” for VA Senior Executive Service (SES) employees, and would authorize the Secretary to reduce the pensions of SES employees who are convicted of a felony that influenced their job. H.R. 5620 would further strengthen accountability at the VA by allowing the Secretary to recoup any bonuses or relocation expenses given to VA employees when the Secretary deems it necessary.
Congresswoman Hartzler represents Missouri’s Fourth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She serves on the House Armed Services, Agriculture, and Budget Committees.