U.S. House to debate bill on firing rules at veterans' agency

WASHINGTON Tue May 20, 2014 12:46pm EDT

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WASHINGTON May 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives will vote this week on a bill that will make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire or demote senior executives, officials said Tuesday, following allegations veterans' healthcare delays have led to preventable deaths.

The bill addressing the "mess at the Veterans administration" will "try and provide the tools to the administration to hold senior managers accountable," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, told reporters.

"The American people are frustrated, especially when those who have served our country in uniform have been treated the way they have and God forbid, who have perished because of the mess at the VA," Cantor said at a news conference.

Eric Shinseki, secretary of the department, has faced calls for his resignation over the allegations, but so far President Barack Obama has resisted the demands and assigned a top White House aide to help the department deal with the problem.

The House bill would give Shinseki "greater authority to fire employees ... due to poor performance in the same manner a member of Congress can remove a member of their staff," according to a summary on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee website.

The department's "widespread and systemic lack of accountability for senior executives is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems," the website said, explaining the need for the bill.

It said department senior executives who had presided over recent negligence have been more likely to receive a bonus than punishment. The legislation, introduced in February, is sponsored by Representative Jeff Miller, Republican chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and has over 100 co-sponsors, including some Democrats.

It is expected to be considered on the House floor Thursday.

The VA has put three senior officials in Phoenix on administrative leave amid accusations that VA medical facilities there covered up long wait times for patients, including 40 who died while awaiting care.

Allegations have been made about similar cover-up schemes at VA medical facilities in at least seven other cities.

The Senior Executives Association, which advocates for career federal executives, has warned Miller's bill could politicize the department's work force by making it easier to fire executives without the due process normally accorded to members of the career civil service.

The White House said Monday that Obama will speak out soon about the reports of healthcare delays at the agency, which runs the largest U.S. healthcare group, overseeing some 1,700 hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other facilities. (Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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