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VA is here to help veterans

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has a plan to add the equivalent of 500 full-time employees to help care for veterans at no extra cost to the taxpayer.

Under a collective bargaining agreement struck by the prior administration, VA employees have been allowed to spend more than 1 million hours a year during the workday on taxpayer-funded union time. That’s like billing taxpayers for 500 people to work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year — to work on union business.

Last year, the VA took the first step to put us back on our mission of helping our wounded warriors. We repudiated part of the Obama-era labor agreement that was allowing hundreds of VA medical professionals to work on union activities instead of delivering health care to veterans.

That system was leading to absurd results by anyone’s standard. In one case, the VA was paying a nurse who never saw patients $90,000 a year, and all that nurse did was work on union activities.

This month, we hope to take an even bigger step to bring back some balance at the VA when it comes to labor-management relations. The VA and the American Federation of Government Employees have agreed to renegotiate the flawed collective bargaining agreement struck in 2011.

I say “flawed” because what the prior administration did was waive many of VA’s rights to manage its own employees. Under the new agreement we proposed, the VA would reclaim those rights and be in a better position to help veterans.

Under our proposal, taxpayer-funded union time for VA employees would be limited to 10,000 hours a year. No longer would we spend 1 million work-day hours on union concerns, a diversion of more than $48 million each year away from our primary purpose.

We’ve also proposed a range of other reforms.

The VA wants to make sure that the contract does not interfere with the department’s ability to take action against poor performers or interfere with VA’s authorities under the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. That important new law is helping the VA serve veterans more effectively by creating a channel for employees to point out faulty practices or bad actors.

We want to eliminate language in the 2011 agreement that has effectively allowed the union to co-manage the VA. Decisions as small as moving an employee from one office to another can yield to objections from the union that freeze the process and disrupt our day-to-day work.

These steps aren’t anti-union, they’re pro-veteran. We’re not asking the union to give up any of its legal rights, we just want to reclaim the rights Congress gave to the VA to manage this department in a way that prioritizes veteran care.

It’s never been more important to make sure this department stays focused on that goal. More veterans than ever before are seeking out care from the VA, a testament to how we’ve improved over the last few years.

An organization as large as the VA always has vacancies. Both Democrats and Republicans have pressed me in the last few weeks to make sure those jobs are filled, and we are working hard to do that.

A new collective bargaining agreement is another way to quickly direct more VA resources and add more capacity to care for those who walk through our doors.

Our proposal is simple: Let the VA spend more time helping veterans who served so honorably to defend this country’s interests and less time on activities that are siphoning resources away from that mission.

We hope the union can appreciate this national priority to serve those who have served us.

Robert Wilkie is the secretary of Veterans Affairs. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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