The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has a simple but crucial mission. The agency’s website quotes President Lincoln’s promise to veterans to describe it:“To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.”
Unfortunately, the VA has not done a good job living up to this mission lately. Just a few years ago it was widely reported that thousands of veterans died waiting for care. This is unacceptable. At the same time, the agency has callously allowed countless VA medical professionals to perform union business rather than serve veterans. And the kicker, this union business is done at the taxpayers’ expense.
This practice, known as union official time, is not cheap, either. In its last report on the cost of official time, the Office of Personnel Managementestimates that VA employees spent about 1.1 million hours on union matters rather than serving veterans. These activities include lobbying Congress, attending union conventions, and filing grievances. In fiscal 2016, official time at the VA cost $49 million. It is important to note that these figures are estimates and likely lowball the hours spent on official time and the costs.
A 2017 Government Accountability Office report on official time use at the VA found the agency lacks proper tracking and recording methods. For example, the VA does not collect reliable data on official time. Instead, it uses “records, estimates, or other methods” to calculate official time. Because of the inaccurate reporting, the GAO could not determine the amount of official time used or what activities were performed. What we do know is that these federal employees were not serving veterans.
But things are about to change. The VA announced on November 8 that “it will be moving nearly 430 medical professionals from taxpayer-funded union work back to health care jobs serving Veterans.” This ensures that VA employees such as physicians, nurses, and dentists are prohibited from using official time to conduct union business and will serve veterans going forward.
Unsurprisingly, union officials representing federal employees were none too pleased with the announcement. American Federation of Government Employees National President David Cox released a statement that claims, “Removing access to [official] time is like asking the fire department to operate without fire trucks or a fire hose—and the result will be just as disastrous for our veterans… Make no mistake, this is an attempt to silence the voices of VA employees at a time when such oversight is more critical than ever.”
This statement is absurd. Cox would lead you to believe that federal employees lobbying Congress on union matters or attending conventions is somehow related to caring for veterans. However, it is hard to imagine how hundreds of VA employees, including doctors and nurses, who spend 100 percent of their time on union business (official time) serves VA’s core mission. Official time is used to negotiate union contracts, lobby Congress, and attend union conventions. These activities serve the narrow interests of federal employee unions and no one else.
Further, eliminating official time for medical professionals at the VA does not stop unions from using their own funds to represent their members. All this change does is make sure federal employees do the job they were hired to do. The VA should now be applauded for putting veterans first and eliminating the use of official time by medical professionals.