Politics

Republicans Blast VA For Putting Unions Ahead Of Veterans Care

Republicans blasted Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials Thursday for allowing hundreds of employees to spend 100 percent of their work hours on union activities instead of caring for veterans, with some in the GOP questioning whether to eliminate taxpayer-funded union time entirely.

Some Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (HOGR) Subcommittee on Government Operations joined the Republicans in demanding a full accounting of the taxpayer-funded hours VA employees devote to conducting union work.

Their comments came after a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealed that VA doesn’t track official time accurately; some VA managers even worry such activities distract from patient care.

“Something’s gotta change,” an exasperated Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said. “I appreciate y’all having the hearing, but look, this is unbelievable, unbelievable what we have here. So let’s hope we can change it and get rid of all these folks on official time.”

“I love the way government works — a fancy name, official time. It sounds like they’re actually working for the taxpayers, working for the veterans, when in fact it’s just the opposite,” Jordan continued.

VA records show about 290,000 employees spent nearly 1.1 million hours in fiscal year 2015 on union activities, and 346 of those employees devoted 100 percent of their efforts to official time. But GAO has no confidence in those figures.

VA facilities use diverse methods for tracking official time, making their numbers unreliable. (RELATED: Government Union Work Jumps Ahead In Line For Care At Veterans Affairs)

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) estimated that the VA spent nearly $47 million on official time in fiscal year 2012, the most recently available data. That’s far more than any other department or agency spends.

Union officials claim official time improves service quality, but North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, the subcommittee’s chairman, questioned the impact of some VA workers devoting all their time to union work while veterans suffer for lack of care on long wait-lists.

Meadows gave witnesses Kim McLeod, VA acting executive director for labor management relations, and David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), 60 days to provide documents proving a direct correlation between the number of hours spent on official time for unions and the quality of service given to veterans.

“I need a direct correlation between the amount of official time and a direct result in terms of training and quality,” said Meadows, who does not believe such a correlation exists.

Democrats also demanded more accurate figures from the VA, but defended the use of official time as a good and necessary tool. (RELATED: VA Employees Include Child Molesters, Rapists And Kidnappers)

Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the subcommittee’s ranking minority member, feared Republicans were painting official time as “shameful.”

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“If we agree official time has value, then we can move on to the other questions,” O’Rourke said. “If we don’t believe in the value of official time, if we think it’s a scam and a fraud, well that’s a decision we can make as well.”

William Lawrence Kovacs, a labor policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute and witness, argued that Congress should eliminate official time.

“Union official time is an unwise use of limited tax dollars and serves the private interests of unions,” Kovacs testified. “The public does not directly benefit from the use of official time. Congress should eliminate the use of official time.”

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