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Senate Set To Vote On Department Of Veterans Affairs Reform Bill

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The U.S. Senate did something today that it hasn't done much of lately. It passed a bipartisan bill. It's the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. As the name suggests, the legislation aims to better protect staffers who bring wrongdoing to light, and it makes firing bad employees easier and faster. As NPR's Geoff Bennett reports, the bill is the latest effort by lawmakers to transform the culture of the VA.

GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Let's meet Raymond Delgado. He's a 68-year-old Marine Corps Vet.

RAYMOND DELGADO: I served in Vietnam. I was in the Marine Corps from 1966 to 1969.

BENNETT: Delgado is diabetic, and he has heart problems. He says a year ago, he was admitted to the VA's West Los Angeles Medical Center for an angiogram procedure. And during his weekend-long stay...

DELGADO: They ran out of food to feed us.

BENNETT: He was sharing a hospital room with three other Veterans.

DELGADO: Things we were supposed to eat, they didn't have it. They said they were out of it, out of it, out of it, out of it. So they bought us potatoes, small potatoes. I told the gentleman, I can't eat potatoes. I'm a diabetic. He said, well, that's all you're going to get.

BENNETT: Delgado says he was discharged due to the food shortage, and he had to wait more than a month to get that angiogram rescheduled.

DELGADO: It's frustrating. It's frustrating, you know?

BENNETT: It's a shared frustration. Montana Senator Jon Tester teamed up with Republican senators Johnny Isakson and Marco Rubio to craft legislation to reform the VA. Tester is the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

JON TESTER: Look. Probably 99.9 percent of the people that work in the VA do a great job. And the Veterans will tell you when they go into the VA clinics, they do do a great job. But we've got a few bad apples.

BENNETT: So the bill gives the VA secretary more power to punish, even fire misbehaving employees. It also speeds up the termination process.

TESTER: That being said, you also need to know that it protects those people who are working for the VA who are doing a good job.

BENNETT: Namely whistleblowers. The bill includes new protections against retaliation for VA staffers who expose corruption. It was, after all, whistleblowers who helped expose the nationwide scandal over long waits for care. Beginning in 2014, VA medical facilities around the country were found to have covered up delays, making waits as long as four months appear much shorter. Since then, the VA has fired fewer than 10 people connected to the waitlist scandal, says Dan Caldwell. He's policy director for Concerned Veterans for America.

DAN CALDWELL: It's a system that is failing the VA, making it harder to bring in better employees and also keeping bad employees around in jobs where they can often harm Veterans.

BENNETT: Caldwell's group supports the Senate legislation. Leading the opposition is the union that represents VA employees. The union argues that the VA's most pressing problem isn't culture or management. It's manpower. VA Secretary David Shulkin says there are 49,000 vacancies at the department. J. David Cox is president of the American Federation for Government Employees. He says if you want to fix the VA, start by shoring up the staff.

J DAVID COX: To fill the 49,000 vacancies that's existing at the VA today that Congress has already appropriated the money for so that, number one, there wouldn't be the waitlist so that Veterans could receive the care that they deserve - that would be true accountability.

BENNETT: The lawmakers backing the bill acknowledge the VA's hospitals and clinics do need to add thousands more employees and make them more accountable. Geoff Bennett, NPR News, the Capitol.

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