As we approach Veterans Day, President Biden has given America’s 20 million veterans a strange sign of appreciation. His administration is rehiring thousands of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees who were dismissed during the Trump Administration for poor performance or misconduct. Unfortunately, patient care will suffer from these reinstatements. The Biden Administration has put pleasing federal unions ahead of veterans’ health.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ mission was born from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. The president, surveying the carnage of America’s bloodiest war, called upon his nation “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
Forty-one million Americans have put on the uniform since 1775, and more than one million have given their lives on what Lincoln called “the altar of freedom.” Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs is the second-largest department in government, serving 9.5 million veterans in more than 1,300 healthcare facilities.
During the Obama-Biden Administration, many veterans died awaiting care on secret waitlists. Then-candidate Donald Trump campaigned on fixing the VA, improving access to care, and making it easier to remove employees who “fail veterans or breach the public trust.”
VA employees get the same civil service protections as the rest of the federal bureaucracy. These procedures make dismissing employees notoriously difficult. Less than half of supervisors are confident they could fire a federal employee for misconduct, and only a quarter believe they could remove a poor performer. Protecting problematic employees anywhere in the bureaucracy is harmful; protecting bad medical personnel can be deadly.
The Trump Administration prioritized fixing VA’s problems. In his first year in office, President Trump signed the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. The VA Accountability Act created a new VA-specific removal authority that shortened dismissal timelines and lowered the VA’s burden of proof. It removed requirements to provide lengthy performance improvement periods before removing poor performers. It also prevented the Merit Systems Protection Board—which has no medical expertise—from second-guessing VA’s proposed penalties.
Most VA employees work hard at their mission. The VA Accountability Act made it much easier to remove the minority who do not. The Trump Administration used the VA Accountability Act extensively to address performance issues.
President Trump coupled the VA Accountability Act with other reforms. He signed the VA MISSION Act to improve veteran healthcare access. He also stopped letting VA medical personnel perform union business during official work hours. Incredibly, despite lengthy waitlists, almost 500 VA employees—including doctors and nurses—had been allowed to work full-time for federal unions while on the clock. The Trump Administration also renegotiated VA’s master union contract to facilitate employee accountability.
These reforms succeeded. Veteran trust in the VA skyrocketed between 2017 and 2020, increasing by almost 20 percentage points to 80%. Veterans loved the changes.
Federal unions, however, did not. Making removals easier reduced their members’ job security. They get paid to prevent that. They also resented losing their ability to conduct union business on the taxpayers’ dime.
The Biden Administration abandoned the progress made during the Trump Administration to improve the VA and ultimately veteran care. The Biden Administration’s VA could have finalized the renegotiated union contract. Instead, they walked away from it and negotiated a new contract that effectively prohibited VA Accountability Act procedures. Soon afterwards, the VA announced it would stop using the VA Accountability Act. VA also once more allowed medical personnel to perform union work during duty hours.
Worse, the Biden Administration settled grievances relating to 5,000 former unionized VA employees who were dismissed for poor performance or misconduct. Their union alleged the dismissals violated their contract and labor rights. The Biden Administration agreed to reinstate most of these employees. All except those who committed “grievous misconduct” will get their jobs back, with back pay. Those who committed grievous misconduct will still get partial back wages. The Biden Administration estimates their settlements will cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
These issues could have been avoided. The Biden Administration could have finalized the renegotiated union contract and kept using the VA Accountability Act. And it could have worked with Congress. Congress is debating legislation that clarifies that VA Accountability Act provisions supersede union contracts—and does so retroactively. If the Restore VA Accountability Act becomes law, the VA would not have to reinstate poor performers. The bill has strong Republican support and would likely pass if President Biden pushed for it.
Instead, the Biden Administration opposes it.
President Biden calls himself the “most pro-union President in history.” He has certainly prioritized restoring union prerogatives at the VA. Thousands of VA employees removed for poor performance or misconduct will get their jobs back as a result.
How would you feel about being treated by a doctor who was fired for cause? Thanks to President Biden, many veterans will soon find out.
Robert Wilkie is a Distinguished Fellow at the America First Policy Institute. He previously served as the 10th Secretary of Veterans Affairs under President Donald Trump.
James Sherk directs the America First Policy Institute’s Center for American Freedom. He previously served as a special assistant to President Trump on the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Robert Wilkie and James Sherk on November 11, 2023