Press Briefing by Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin on Executive Order Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protections
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
6:18 P.M. EDT
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Hi, everybody. this is my first briefing, so I’m glad to see you all. Tomorrow, the President is going to be coming over to VA in the afternoon and is going to be signing an executive order that is entitled “Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.”
As you know, accountability is an important issue to us at VA and something that we’re focusing on to make sure that we have employees who work and are committed to the mission of serving our veterans. And when we find employees that have deviated from those values, we want to make sure that we can move them outside the VA and not have them working at VA.
The House has passed a bill already on accountability. The Senate is working hard to do the same. The President is committed to this issue and so, therefore, will sign an executive order.
What this Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Office does is it establishes a specific office with an executive in charge that will report directly to me as Secretary so that we can identify barriers that are preventing us from moving employees and people that we have identified that should no longer be working as VA, and make sure that we can do that expeditiously. And that’s an important part of one of our priorities in accomplishing the mission that we have to take care of our countries veterans.
Be glad to take any questions on that issue. Donovan Slack, from USA Today.
Q I just want to thank you --
SECRETARY SHULKIN: I’ve always wanted to do that. (Laughter.)
Q How does this office differ from the Office of Accountability Review?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: The Office of Accountability Review is an office that was set up after our 2014 issue that deals with our senior executives so that we’ve taken those decision away from the field, so that the central office -- our senior executives can have a special office that reviews their performance and makes recommendations to the department. This is a broader office that will be taking a look at all of our employees.
Q So going all the way down?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Going all the way down, making sure that we identify systemic barriers that prevent us from making the right decisions, and also make sure that we’re honoring the communities that we have to our whistleblowers who have come forth and identified issues so that there’s not retaliation against them.
Q And then, last one, how does this jive with the White House hotline for VA complaints and then the other task force to investigate fraud and abuse?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Okay, so these are all three efforts that are important for us to identify issues that are preventing us from doing the very best job that we can. So we’re keeping our employees and our executives accountable to the values, to be able to work at the VA. We are soliciting input from veterans who feel that they have issues that they want to share with us, and that’s what the hotline will be doing. And we are announcing tomorrow a task force for fraud, waste, and abuse to make sure that we are aggressively investigating any issues that might lead to the waste of taxpayer dollars.
Q Secretary, the VA obviously has had problems with protecting whistleblowers in the past, and this sounds like, potentially, a lot of internal investigations that could be going on to ferret out who said what about whom, who did what. Have you thought about how much -- this office -- to operate is going to cost? How many staff it will have?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: There will be an additional cost to this. This is an important responsibility that we have to make sure that we protect those employees who come forth and tell us about issues, and we don’t want retaliation.
Part of the President’s executive order is requiring us to take a look at what resources we already currently have dedicated to these types of activities, and make sure that we’re not duplicating our resources, and making sure that when we implement an office like this that it’s done in the most efficient way. But this is an important responsibility. Our employees have to feel safe, when they see something, to tell us about it.
Q Are you talking about a ballpark figure yet for how much this office will cost to run?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: I don’t have the exact figure for that, but these are -- at a department the size that we have, these are not small amounts. This is going to be a substantial commitment.
Q Can you talk about staffing for the office? Are you going to have to draw staff for this office from existing VA employees, or will you hire specifically for this office? And if you are drawing staff from people who currently work at VA, is that a concerns given shortages at the department?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Well, one of the things that we’re doing right now is we are looking at our current structure in our corporate setting. We think that the staffing has gotten too large at our corporate offices and we want to make sure that our resources are out into the field where we can be helping with direct service to veterans.
So as we look through our modernization efforts, we’re looking to take the current staff and move them into new organizations like this. So I am not anticipating that we’re looking at adding new staff, but we’re looking at using our current staff in a more efficient way.
Q So as you mentioned, so the House has passed a bill that would really clear the path for you to be able to terminate people who have been accused of misconduct. So what -- I’m not clear where the responsibilities of the staff of this new office fall. And do you need Congress -- I mean, why have Congress passed a bill if you have this office? And what is -- what can’t you -- you, the VA -- manage the VA now to fire someone who has been incompetent or whatever, that this office gives you the power to do?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Well, I think that what you’re seeing now is the President’s commitment to making sure that we stay on track with this and that we’re moving aggressively. And so he’s asking through his executive order for the VA to do everything that it can internally. But we know that that’s not going to be enough to get done what I want to get done, which is to be able to, once we identify people that need to leave the organization, to get them out quickly.
So I do need legislative help as well. So the House has passed a bill. The Senate is working on one. We need them to come to agreement to be able to give the President a bill to sign. It will be that combination of a legislative solution with an office in the VA that we will stand up because of the executive order. But I think what is necessary to make sure that we are moving people out of the VA when it is identified to be appropriate to take that action.
Q Okay, but in the absence of legislation, what powers do you have now, by standing up this office, that you don’t have right now, if there’s employee who has -- watch porn, or you know, done whatever -- wasted money, stolen money, whatever?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: I think what this is doing is it’s elevating the office directly under me so that this is a direct report to the Secretary. So it’s taking accountability up to the highest level.
Secondly, it’s asking us to do the internal review to make sure that our current efforts aren’t duplicative. That they are the most efficient possible. And if do identify that there are resources requirements needed, that we address those and that we make sure that there’s an immediate focus on on this issue.
Q How you are going to convince the whistleblowers that they are safe? You know how things work in the government offices. How are you going to assure them that if they come forward, they are covered?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Well, once again, this office is going to have a direct report to me. And we will be in investigating any issues related to retaliation. And the message is clear that we will not tolerate whistleblower retaliation in the Department of Veteran Affairs. And we will take actions if we do determine that retaliation has been imposed upon an employee who has come forth with an issue.
Q The OAR, did it not report to the Secretary before?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: No, it reports through our office of legal counsel.
Q And will that office still exist?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Yes, it will.
Q This office is on top of that?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Yes. And one of the issues that the President has asked us to do in the executive order is take a look at areas that are duplications. So if there is overlap, we will look at that and potentially address that. But right now, this OAR office, Office of Accountability and Review, is focused on our senior executives.
Q Just a quick one from the personnel -- a friend of mine who was in Maine and was in Japan, came back and most of the time he complains that he goes to the VA hospital, that even at -- the problem is at the reception. The receptionist is talking on the phone, or he has given his address change twice. It didn't change. So what are you going to do about those frontline -- they first meet them and they are really disappointed?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Right. Well, this is different than an accountability action. What you're talking about is poor customer service and poor focus and attention and poor training.
And so what we are doing is focusing on creating a culture where that doesn't exist. I can't tell you today that with 360,000 employees that people don't on occasion experience that. What we're working hard to do is to make sure that everybody who works in the VA understands that their mission is to serve and to serve our veterans. And when we find behaviors like that, we had to address them from a management perspective, not necessarily an accountability perspective.
Q Two quick questions for you. One, will this office address the time that it’s often taken the IG to do investigations on personnel when an issue does come up? I believe that's been a challenge for you all in the past.
And then, two, how does this office differ from the Central Whistleblower Office that I think you all were supposed -- or are standing up with the NEAA?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: So in regards to IG investigations, no, this will not address that. The IG is an independent body, and this will not be addressed in that. But I’ve already said that we will not be waiting for the IG to finish their investigations if we have enough evidence to be able to take an action on accountability and on the status of employment.
On the Whistleblower Office, yes, these are similar. We have been asked through a piece of legislation to stand up a Whistleblower Office, and that will be part of this office. We will not duplicate that.
Q Can you give us an update on the Washington, D.C. medical center?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Yes. The Washington, D.C. medical center, as people may know, experienced a problem with their inventory control system. The IG issued an interim report that I found concerning enough that I made a change in management.
We have put in a new acting director that was hand-selected by me who has been there day and night. The inventory control system, which was not in place was put in place and has been in place since 48 hours after we discovered the issue. Patient safety is not at all compromised. There has not been any patient harm that we are aware of, of this. And we are continuing our investigation as to the actions that will result from the management perspective.
Q Can I ask one more thing? You said I think said recently publicly there was some -- an employee accused of watching pornography or something like that?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Yes.
Q And you said something to the effect of, well, I can't fire that person, or it’s difficult for me.
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Yes.
Q So what is this new antidote going to do to enhance your ability to move forward with something like that?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: That was a situation where we found a physician that had been watching pornography in the setting with a patient. Because that was raised to my attention, I made the decision personally to propose the removal of that employee. And that was done immediately.
This is the type of action that this office is going to allow, when there is outrageous behavior that’s not acceptable to us, it is going to raise it to the visibility of this office that will report directly to me so that we can make sure those decisions are made quickly and decisively.
Q But will appeal rights for civil servants be changed? You can't do that without legislation, right?
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Yes, this will not change the process. And if there is any change to the process, to the due process, that would need to be done legislatively.
Q Thank you.
SECRETARY SHULKIN: Thank you very much, everybody.
6:34 P.M. EDT