Is the VA on Life Support

Is the Veterans Administration Workforce Terminally ill?

The recent veterans health “crisis”  at the Phoenix Veterans Healthcare Facility has opened up a host of new attacks on federal employees.  Whereas these attacks were previously the exclusive sole domain of the Republican Party, Democrats no longer offer opposition and have become complicit in many cases.  A prime example is the recent proposal (passed the House) in which the Republican controlled House Veterans Affairs Committee voted to ban all bonuses for all VA employees through 2016 (bonuses would not be allowed until 2017). Originally, the Committee targeted only bonuses of the affected VA Executives at the Phoenix facility. The targets expanded to all Senior Executive Service (SES) executives in VA and then, ultimately affected all Veterans Affairs employees, not even just those in the Veterans Health Administration, the affected agency within the Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA is comprised of three main departments, Veterans Health, Veterans Benefits, and National Cemetery).  In short, Republicans proposed, and Democrats so far agree, all employees should be penalized for the actions of a few executives.

Pre-Existing Conditions

Like nearly every other federal agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and more specifically (by comparison), the Veterans Health Administration, was faced with a number of pre-existing conditions affecting the workforce. Specifically,

  • Widespread position downgrades without stated basis
  • Lower rates of pay than comparable positions in private sector with wider spread differences the higher the grade and specialization
  • Years of pay freezes
  • Facility budget freezes and overall reluctance to expend funds
  • Constant denigration of workforce by Republicans (and some Democrats)
  • Widespread reductions in performance awards
  • Increased cost of benefits with decreasing access to benefits
  • Attacks on retirement benefits
  • Sharp reductions of other monetary awards (to include QSI’s)
  • Lack of workplace flexibility (flexiplace, telework, etc…)
  • Elimination of relocation expenses as a recruiting incentive
  • Elimination of retention incentives in retaining qualified individuals
  • Inability to fill key manager and leadership positions (due to many of these conditions)
  • Duplicate layers of management (Integrated Service Network model)
  • Confusion and indecision from Headquarters
  • Absolutely no workforce succession planning, though many faked it pretty good
  • Significantly increased patient population and expansion of eligibility

As a result, just like in many other federal agencies, particularly those directly affected by sequestration in addition to other issues outlined above, the workforce of the Veterans Administration has become destabilized.  However, just like a high functioning alcoholic, the effect of the conditions on the workforce were not outwardly easily identifiable unless you were intimately familiar with the agency.  By all accounts, the workforce collectively functioned despite the environment.  In short, the combined effect amounted to relinquishing management and leadership of the workforce because managers no longer had access to critical tools necessary to manage and drive the workforce.  Tools available to any private sector organization.

“The Mission” Myth of Public Service

Throughout the years, agencies have come to rely on the goodwill of federal employees in performing governmental work to offset differences in pay and benefits.  Agencies also rely on the one standby benefit that many in private sector no longer have; the defined pension benefit.  However, there are two critical problems with this view, as many smart federal employees have started to realize.  First, this benefit is under attack to include outright reductions, increased contributions, and elimination of the Social Security supplement leaving many federal employees to understand the benefit they expected to receive (promised) is likely less than they will in fact receive.  The second problem is that even under the best of conditions, the defined retirement benefit is really nominal when everything is considered and both TSP and Social Security benefits comprise about eighty-percent of any total retirement benefit in reality.  This nominal return is easily offset by the higher front-end rates of pay and benefits in private sector.  A good recent example we encountered is a GS-13 colleague who left for private sector healthcare who 1) increased her basic rate of pay by twenty-three percent, 2) received better benefits than federal employees (to include full dental and vision as part of health plan), most of which are incorporated in retirement, 3) receives bonuses at rates equivalent up to twenty-five percent of basic pay,  and 4) is able to telework at her own discretion, saving commuting costs.  Her analysis indicates that both in the short term and long-term she will come out far ahead financially. Clearly, not every federal position will find this to be true.  The reason?  The higher the grade and specialty in federal service, the greater the pay and benefits disparity.  Whereas a GS-4 food service worker in the Department of Veterans Affairs is clearly far better off than a food service worker at McDonalds, the GS-13 administrator in the Department is worse off than his/her private sector counterpart.  A VHA facility Director is likely paid two hundred-percent (or more) less than his/her private sector counterpart.  This issue was raise by the agency in Congressional testimony and discussed publicly by former VA Undersecretary W. Scott Gould.

The bottom line is that federal employees, in our collective experience, no longer care about “the Mission” of the agency.  Only the independently wealthy can afford this altruistic view, and even then it would be difficult to find among any intelligent employee who witnessed financial service sector employees profit from their arrogance and negligence. You can mostly thank Republicans for this shift in federal employee ideology.  However, President Obama has done very little for Federal employees as well.  Years of denigration and vicious attacks have taken a toll on federal employees.  Combined with pre-existing conditions outlined above, federal employees can no simply afford to operate with this concept as a basis for employment and performance.  Private sector employees work with a primary consideration (and objective) of achieving sufficient pay and benefits to maintain or improve their quality of life.  Do we, as a society, expect star athletes to accept less pay and benefits for “the love of the game” or to inspire children?  Did we ask Wall Street bankers to take a pay-cut because of the havoc they caused? Why should federal employees just be thankful to have a job? If you do, you obviously think less of yourself.  Don’t put every federal employee in that category; it’s neither true or warranted.

The myth of mission importance alone will not be sufficient to recruit and retain quality employees ever again. Arguably, the nobility and honor of public service died with President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 and no president since has inspired such notions.

Congress is Not a Qualified Doctor in this Case

Irony, perhaps not lost on the American people and definitely not lost on VA employees, is that Congress, perhaps being the most dysfunctional and non-performing organization in American history, will regulate the performance of the VA moving forward.  This is comical quite frankly; the comedy of which has already been signaled to all VA employees. Instead of targeting the Senior Executives responsible, it’s original position, Congress decided to target every VA employee by eliminating all bonuses.  This is analogous to bombing an entire city because a a few bad guys live in the city.  This is one sure way to drive performance down to the lowest possible level of functionality- remove every incentive for high performance. Adding insult to injury is that this effort is coming from some of the most ineffective elected representatives in the history our country.  For example, the House Veterans Affairs Committee was made aware of the scheduling issue years ago and multiple times since.  Yet, they did nothing.

Though many will argue various aspects of complicity (in fact, they are already), Congress, President Obama, and former President Bush are all responsible for where we find ourselves.  President Bush launched two wars without funding, in fact he cut taxes.  Congress authorized the wars without funding and allowed the wars to continue for the previous twelve years.  Congress also attacked federal employees on multiple occasions verbally and through its actions of freezing pay and reducing benefits.  President Obama allowed the wars to continue unfunded and further allowed Congress to attack federal employees as well as their pay and benefits.  President Obama also allowed the Agency to expand enrollment to new classes of Veterans and even eliminated financial disclosure requirements for means testing, placing an even greater burden on the operations of the agency.

The Threat of Privatization is Not Really a Threat to Many Employees

Clearly, this is a political equation.  As such, it is clear Republicans are making initial moves toward privatization, or quasi-privatization, of VHA functions.  While many consider this a threat, many would also be interested to know many employees of the VHA welcome such an effort.  Let me explain why.  Many senior level professional employees, especially those near retirement, would simply exit the agency under favorable financial terms and transition to private sector at much higher rates of pay. Their skills will be in desperate need as parts of the federal workforce and servicing functions transition to private sector.  Whether a GS-13 Health Systems Specialist (HSS) or GS-12 Employee and Labor Relations Specialist, these skills will be required to facilitate and sustain such a transition as you will likely face not a complete elimination of Civil Service Rules, but a Hybrid system (like Hybrid Title 38).  The VA might face a sudden brain drain of senior level professional employees and occupations to the private sector, with which it cannot compete. Many employees are positioned for such a transition already.  The impact on Title 38/Hybrid and Title 38 occupations will be especially interesting.

The Only Way to Get Healthy

Of course the Agency plays a significant role in addressing many of the workforce pre-conditions outlined above.  However, so do the exclusive labor organizations (there are more than one).  The predominant labor organization is the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).  The largest Council is the National Veterans Affairs Council. Neither of these organizations did much to oppose and halt downgrades, pay freezes, cuts to benefits, etc….  Therefore it is perhaps unfair to expect them to lobby successfully now.  However, the most prevalent answer in addressing the issues can only be obtained through the political process.

Federal employees represent the only classifiable group that regularly votes against their own self-interests and then complain about the impact of those votes on their conditions of employment. Both in our practical experience and through generally accepted survey results, we see time and time again how the federal workforce will vote predominantly Republican even though the Republican position has traditionally, and overtly, worked against the interests of federal employees.  The GOP has been the primary driver in pay freezes, privatization efforts, benefits reduction, and increased retirement contributions to just name a few considerations. The equivalent comparison would be if all seniors voted for candidates who supported the elimination or reduction of their own Medicare and Social Security Benefits and then complained when they were eliminated or reduced.  This analogy should not be confused with the proven Tea Party position of eliminating or reducing benefits for others, just not them.

The only real solution to addressing the VA workforce issues or wider federal workforce issues is for federal employees to actually act in their own interest as a voting group – no different than gun advocates.  The labor organizations are charged with communicating this message and executing the action plan – neither of which they have done effectively to date.

Summation

While the full impact of so called “reforms” on the VA workforce are not yet known, everyone seems to agree, whether a GS-4 clerk or a GS-15 executive, we are heading in a very bad direction based on some known reform proposals.  Concerns are already being raised regarding retention and recruitment of qualified personnel as well as associated higher costs in filling frequently transited positions as the agency hires personnel only to lose them due to job and employment conditions and dissatisfaction.  No organization can survive a long period of workforce destabilization and the VA workforce, like much of the federal workforce, has been destabilized for years already.

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