WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Department of Veterans Affairs will no longer use its authority to fire senior executives in an expedited manner - dropping a key portion of a law Congress passed two years ago in response to a nationwide scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking medical care.
Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the agency was forced to abandon the new authority after the Justice Department said it would no longer defend the provision in court.
"Under these circumstances, I believe it would be irresponsible to continue using that authority when other methods for disciplining senior executives exist," Gibson said late Friday.
Using the expedited authority against Justice Department advice "would only hinder VA's ability to hold senior officials accountable...and make those actions stick," Gibson said.
The Justice Department told Congress last month that it was not contesting a legal argument by a fired VA official at the center of the scandal.
Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, argues in court papers that the 2014 law is unconstitutional and denies her right to appeal her firing.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a May 31 letter that the Justice Department essentially agrees with Helman's argument, citing a law that requires appeals of high-level firings to go to the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency that reviews personnel actions by the executive branch.
The 2014 law sends an employee's appeal directly to an administrative judge, whose ruling is final.
Congress adopted the law amid frustration by lawmakers of both parties, who said the VA and other federal agencies were too slow to fire employees for wrongdoing.
Lawmakers were incensed by reports that veterans on secret waiting lists in Phoenix and other cities faced scheduling delays of up to a year. As many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA hospital, according to an investigation by the VA's inspector general.
The inspector general found that workers at the Phoenix hospital falsified waiting lists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care. Similar problems were soon discovered nationwide.
Republicans called the agency's decision to abandon the expedited firings outrageous.
"It is unconscionable that the VA is choosing to blatantly ignore all of the accountability reforms set in place by the Veterans Choice Act" adopted by Congress in 2014 and signed by President Barack Obama, said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
"Two years ago, veterans were forced to wait far too long for care because of incompetent executives. Since then, we've seen scandal after scandal emerge at the department," Isakson said. "I am not going to stand by and watch the VA continue to look the other way while another one of its own gets away with egregious misconduct."
Isakson urged Congress to pass a bipartisan bill giving VA even greater authority to fire executives quickly - a provision Isakson said would stand up to a constitutional challenge.
"Everyone knows VA isn't very good at disciplining employees, but this decision calls into question whether department leaders are even interested in doing so," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans panel.
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