Rubio’s VA reforms a step forward

President Donald Trump has signed into law legislation that should inject more accountability into the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bipartisan effort led by Sen. Marco Rubio offers a combination of carrots and sticks aimed at making it easier to uncover problems and punish wrongdoers. The reforms should help address the systemic issues that persistently plague the VA and prevent too many veterans from getting the care and services they deserve.

The law, which Trump signed last week, makes disciplining bad employees easier while providing protection for whistleblowers. On the disciplinary side, it shortens the appeals process, broadens the VA secretary’s disciplinary authority and reduces the standard of evidence from a preponderance to substantial. Employee unions objected to these changes, but the law should allow for accountability while still providing due process to workers.

A failure to hold bad employees accountable at the VA has been a glaring problem for years.

Reform efforts were spurred in 2014 by reports of neglect and the cover-up of lengthy appointment delays across the nation, leading to then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation and an FBI criminal investigation. Fewer than 10 employees connected to the wait list scandal were fired. Across the nation, VA employees have committed armed robbery, watched pornography on the job and stolen prescription drugs without being dismissed, as Rubio and two fellow senators noted in a Military Times column.

A responsible, efficient VA is especially important for North Carolina which has a significant veteran population. The Durham VA, which has 3,400 staff members, treats 70,000 patients a year.

In a 2014 national audit, the Durham VA had the longest average wait time in the country for patients making mental health appointments, at 104 days. In response to those findings, the Durham VA has invested heavily in decreasing wait times for appointments, and last year it said its wait time is down to 3.58 days for mental health appointments and 8.91 for specialty-care appointments.

The new law also establishes the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within the VA. The office will help protect whistleblowers from retaliation for reporting wrongdoing to officials. This new level of oversight and accountability is a sorely needed change for the second-largest government agency in the nation.

There is still much work to be done in improving the VA, and this is far from a comprehensive fix. Changing the culture of an institution takes time and a serious long-term commitment. Congress should make it a priority to closely oversee the department for signs of improvement or regression. There also are about 45,000 vacancies that need to be filled, and Congress should ensure those are filled diligently with highly skilled professionals. Rubio’s legislation is a welcome step forward, but it cannot be the last.

This editorial is adapted from a version originally published by Tampa Bay Times.