WASHINGTON (KSAZ/AP) - President Donald Trump on Thursday created an office at the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve accountability and protect whistleblowers, calling it a "bold step forward."
Trump, who made improving veterans' care a prominent issue in his presidential campaign, said the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection will make clear "that we will never, ever tolerate substandard care for our great veterans." VA Secretary David Shulkin said the office will help identify "barriers" that make it difficult for the department to fire or reassign bad employees.
Another function of the office will be to help shield whistleblowers from retaliation.
"With the creation of this office, we are sending a strong message: Those who fail our veterans will be held, for the first time, accountable," Trump said at the VA before signing an executive order to create the office. "And at the same time, we will reward and retain the many VA employees who do a fantastic job, of which we have many."
The move follows Trump's signing last week of a bill that extends a VA program that allowed some veterans to seek medical care outside of the department's troubled health system.
In 2014, as many as 40 veterans died as they spent months waiting for appointments at the VA medical center in Phoenix. Officials there were found to have manipulated appointment data and engaged in other schemes in an attempt to cover up the backlog.
Trump also joined veterans' groups in calling on the Senate to pass a pending accountability measure.
The House has already passed a bill to make it make it easier for the VA to fire, suspend or demote employees for poor performance or bad conduct, but the Senate continues to work on its version of the legislation. Shulkin said Trump's decision to create the office even before Congress sends him a bill speaks to his commitment to accountability at the VA.
"He's asking through his executive order for VA to do everything that it can internally," Shulkin said Wednesday at a White House briefing. "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."
Veterans' organizations also want the Senate to act soon.
"Secretary Shulkin's hands will be tied until Congress passes strong accountability legislation," said Mark Lucas, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America. Lucas said the office was a "positive first step" but not enough to fix the culture at the VA.
The new office will also investigate reports of retaliation against VA employees who expose illegal or unethical conduct, Shulkin said, adding that "we will take actions" if it is determined that an employee whistleblower has been subjected to retaliation for coming forward.
No new hiring will be done for the office. Existing VA employees will be transferred, despite department-wide employee shortages and a decision to leave thousands of VA positions unfilled. Shulkin said he didn't have dollar figures for how much the office would cost, but said it will require a "substantial commitment."
The executive order is one of several Trump is signing this week as he seeks to score accomplishments before Saturday, his symbolic 100th day in office.
Among those who stood with the President as he signed the bill was the whistleblower himself, Brandon Coleman. He came forward two years ago, revealing that suicidal veterans at the Phoenix VA were walking out of the emergency room, turned away and uncared for.
Coleman said he was retaliated against by Phoenix VA directors, and hopes that retaliation will soon be made a punishable offense. Coleman said real VA whistleblowers are being considered to be a part of the new office.
"We need to be included for this to have any teeth," said Coleman, in a phone interview. "We're the ones who knows what its like to lose your job, lose pay, or to be sent home, or to be fired."
Coleman said he has heard of horrible stories from others.
"I get five to seven calls a week from people just crying," said Coleman. "For whatever reason, the VA chooses to go after the whistleblowers harder than fixing the problems raised by the whistleblowers."
Coleman said he hopes the new office will change the culture at Phoenix VA.
"I would like to see proper training of management, where whistleblowers are accepted," said Coleman. "Even as of now, I'll never get another promotion with the VA. I'm a pariah because I told the truth, and it's really sad the VA uses that as a scare tactic to keep other whistleblowers from coming forward."
The Associated Press (AP) contributed to the report.