VA needs help from employees paid full time for union work
by Don McKee
June 16, 2013 10:40 PM | 1125 views | 0 0 comments | 63 63 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Don McKee
Don McKee
You might think the Veterans Affairs agency needs all the help it can get to cope with a backlog of almost 900,000 veterans’ disability claims waiting to be processed and an average wait of more than 300 days.

But it seems the VA doesn’t need almost 200 of its employees in veterans support work. Instead, they are doing union work while drawing federal salaries and benefits under a program called “official time.” It’s another example of Washington-speak and the systemic malfunctioning of our government.

So what is “official time?” Here’s the definition straight from the federal Office of Personnel Management: “Official time is time spent by federal employees performing representational work for a bargaining unit in lieu of their regularly assigned work.” This program under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, says the OPM, is “a core component of the federal government’s carefully crafted collective bargaining system.”

It’s a safe bet that if most Americans knew about this, they would demand an end to it. U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Marietta Republican, has been trying to do just that for years without success. He introduced repeal legislation in 2009, 2011 and again this year. If it ever gets through the House, it would likely fail in the Democrat-run Senate.

Two U.S. senators are trying to put some heat on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to get his priorities straight with regard to “official time” after President Obama’s press secretary recently said Obama was “deadly serious” about ending the claims backlog. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in a letter to Shinseki noted that 257 VA employees had served “in 100 percent official time capacity since Jan. 2012.”

Of those employees doing full-time union work on government pay, “188 of them were (supposed) to be fulfilling roles in direct support of veterans, such as health care and security,” the senators wrote. “With 188 additional employees instead processing veterans’ benefit claims, the VA could do away with the current backlog of 25,372 claims at the Cleveland Regional Office in just over three months and handle nearly 100,000 claims per year. Many of these federal employees also possess important skills for the medical care of our veteran population.”

Portman and Coburn said VA documents showed at least 85 VA nurses — some with six-figure salaries — “were in 100 percent official time status” even while the agency is recruiting “to fill open nursing positions.” The senators said other VA medical and security personnel also spent full time doing union work. The list includes four addiction specialists, nine pharmacists and pharmacist technicians, a rehabilitation specialist for the blind, five social workers, 11 health technicians, 12 medical support assistants, two psychologists and six police officers.

Among a long list of questions posed by Portman and Coburn: Have any claims processing personnel had been on 100 percent official time and if so, how many. And: How might official time affect VA’s efforts to eliminate the backlog?

Next question: Will the senators get answers?
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