Is Ga. Sen. Johnny Isakson too soft on VA's bad employees?

Former GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio and a leading House Republican said they fear Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., may undermine a proposal to bring stronger accountability for bad employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Credit: Brad Schrade

Credit: Brad Schrade

In a letter last week, Sen. Rubio and Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Committee of Veterans' Affairs, accused Isakson of halting negotiations for a proposal that would make it easier to fire VA employees not doing their jobs.

Since December, Isakson, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, had been part of talks among lawmakers and Congressional staff for a series of bills on veterans' issues, the letter said. But those negotiations, which centered on strengthening the VA's hand to remove problem employees, have broken down, the letter said.

Rubio and Miller accuse Isakson of ending the talks, and they express concern he is trying to reach an agreement with the Obama administration that won't address the real problems at the VA.

"We hope you realize that any piece of comprehensive veterans' legislation that doesn't provide the VA Secretary swift and comprehensive disciplinary authority for all VA employees misses the true mark on what ails the Department," the letter says.

The Rubio/Miller letter, which was posted on the House veterans affairs committee website, is notable because of the public strife within Republican ranks over what tack to take with the VA following the scandal that rocked the agency two years ago over long wait times at VA health centers.

Isakson's office didn't directly address the allegations in the letter, but his spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said his office hasn't backed away from the accountability problems. He supported Rubio's accountability bill when it came and passed out of his committee last July. A similar proposal was adopted by the full House last year, too.

But even though Republicans have a Senate majority, the proposal ran into opposition in the full Senate. Isakson remains undeterred, Maddox said.

"Senator Isakson is working on a large, bipartisan legislative package that includes a number of provisions to hold employees at the VA more accountable," Maddox said.

Isakson assumed the veterans' committee chairmanship last year when Republicans won control of the Senate. A veteran himself, Isakson has witnessed problems plague VA facilities and offices in Georgia since he was elected to the Senate in 2004.

In 2013, a rash of suicides caused a scandal at the Atlanta VA Medical Center and this year the center had to resort to installing anti-climbing fencing on its parking decks to prevent veterans from jumping.

The VA's national Health Eligibility Center, headquartered in DeKalb County, oversees health care enrollment for millions of veterans nationwide. It has had a series of management failures and documented dishonesty by senior officials linked to enrollment backlogs.

"Senator Isakson agrees that there are many problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs that must be addressed, most pressing of which is the need for accountability at the department," Maddox said.

To that end, Isakson's legislative package should be introduced in the next week or two, she said, and he believes it "will be able to pass the Senate."

Whether or not it will go far enough to appease those calling for tougher measures on VA employees remains to be seen. In addition to the letter, Miller, a Florida Republican, issued a statement on the House committee's website urging Isakson's committee to take action.

"VA's inability to hold problem employees accountable is at the root of all the department's most serious problems, and that's why we are calling on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs -- and the Senate as a whole -- to act," he said.

The conservative-leaning veterans group, Concerned Veterans for America, issued a statement on Tuesday that seemed intent on adding pressure from the right for Isakson to take action.

“Chairman Miller and Senator Rubio are right — the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee needs to endorse common sense reform proposals like the VA Accountability Act,” the statement said.