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State of the VA: Collective bargaining on table

W. Kenneth Medley II • Feb 14, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the House Veteran Affairs Committee chairman, said the VA is not attractive enough to medical professionals, during a “State of the VA” press call Wednesday.

Hosting the event was the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal and District of Columbia workers. It has 310,000 dues-paying members, according to its website, and lobbies for legislation representing all government employees.

Vacancies at the VA have climbed to 46,000 nationwide, and there is a push to outsource care, an emailed statement from the federation said. Takano hopes to help fill open positions by passing the recently introduced H.R. 1133. The bill aims to modify restrictions to VA employees’ collective bargaining rights.

The call began with advocates citing 2018 studies by Rand and Dartmouth that says the VA is providing the “best and most comprehensible” healthcare. Mary Jean Burke, the first executive vice president of AFGE’s National VA Council, went on to say the studies found that wait times are better at VA facilities than some civilian counter-parts.

Burke expressed frustration that instead of expanding programs, there seems to be an ideological push to outsource. She agreed that if services cannot be provided, or in a timely manner, then Veterans Choice is a viable option, adding that all options need to be explained thoroughly to the veteran.

Takano then came on the line and made reference to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs’ investigation into three individuals accused of possible corruption by making decisions effecting VA policy and contracts. They are private citizens who have not been elected or appointed.

He said his three main concerns in the matter are corruption, transparency and private individuals acting as “gatekeepers” for who can work at the top echelons of the VA. The committee has requested documents and cell phone records among the three and Robert Wilkie, the secretary of Veteran Affairs. There is a Feb. 22 deadline for the records to be delivered.

The main focus of Takano’s talk was H.R. 1133. He said he hopes lifting the restrictions will make potential employees give another look at the VA. Takano stated that this would bring employment standards at the VA close to that of the civilian sector.

Collective bargaining rights for employees would allow negotiations that have the potential to raise salaries and other benefits. This is an area that Rep. Takano said the VA could improve if it wants to attract and retain employees.

He and co-sponsors of the bill hope this will also raise the health care standard for veterans. That, he said, is the end goal: “to provide the best health care possible to the nations veterans.”

They will host a Veterans Town Hall Thursday at the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center.

Their website said the town hall will feature leadership from different departments of the facility. The purpose is to provide an opportunity to hear directly from leadership and have questions answered about VA eligibility and benefits.