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Senate poised to make firing VA employees easier

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks at the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, June 5, 2017. Shulkin said Monday the department will be overhauling its electronic health records, adopting a commercial product used by the Pentagon that he hopes will improve care for veterans and reduce wait times for medical appointments. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — The Senate is poised to approve legislation to make firing employees easier for the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs, part of an accountability effort urged by President Donald Trump.

The Senate bill comes more than three years after a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, in which some veterans died while waiting months for appointments. VA employees had created secret lists to cover up delays.

The measure would lower the burden of proof for VA employees to be fired — from a "preponderance" to "substantial evidence," allowing a dismissal even if most evidence is in a worker's favor.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, is opposing the bill. But the bipartisan measure is considered less harsh than a version passed by the House in March, mostly along party lines. The Senate bill preserves a longer appeal process than the House's version — 180 days vs. 45 days. VA executives also would be held to a tougher standard than rank-and-file employees.

Senators were scheduled to vote on the bill later Tuesday.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the panel's top Democrat, praised the measure as a practical, compromise bill that will "give the VA what it needs to hold people accountable." There are more than 30 senators co-sponsoring the bill, and VA Secretary David Shulkin backs the additional firing authority.

"This is the strongest accountability measure for the VA that can be signed into law," Isakson said.

During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged to bring greater accountability to the VA. In April, he signed an executive order to create a VA accountability office.

Critics have complained that few employees are fired for VA malfeasance.

The Associated Press reported last week that federal authorities were investigating dozens of new cases of possible opioid and other drug theft by employees at VA hospitals, even after the VA announced "zero tolerance" in February. Since 2009, in only about 3 percent of the reported cases of drug loss or theft have doctors, nurses or pharmacy employees been disciplined.

"The regular stories of misconduct, negligence and abuse at the Department of Veterans Affairs will not end until Secretary Shulkin is empowered to quickly terminate bad employees," said Dan Caldwell, policy director of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America.