WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin urged Congress on Wednesday to pass a law that would let him respond more quickly to employee misconduct, such as the case of a psychiatrist who was caught watching pornography on an iPad while seeing a patient.
Shulkin, in a briefing on the state of the department, said that veterans' access to medical care had improved significantly since a scandal over wait times three years ago prompted the resignation of a VA secretary and forced major reforms.
But Shulkin, who served as undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for Health in the Obama administration, said a review of 137 studies and assessments identified 13 areas of "significant risk," including rules that keep the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from moving quickly to fire employees for misconduct.
"We currently have 1,500 disciplinary actions that are pending, meaning people that either need to be fired, demoted (or) suspended without pay for violating our core values," Shulkin told reporters.
"Our accountability processes are clearly broken. We have to wait more than a month to fire a psychiatrist who was caught on camera watching pornography using his iPad while seeing a veteran," Shulkin said.
A VA news release on March 31 said an internal review recommended that the person be dismissed, but the law requires a 30-day waiting period before a final decision can be carried out. It said the psychiatrist was removed from patient care and placed on administrative duties.
"We need new accountability legislation, and we need that now," Shulkin said.
In a case in Puerto Rico, he said, the department was forced to take back an employee who had been convicted of driving under the influence several times and had served a 60-day jail term.
Shulkin also warned that Veterans Affairs buildings were falling into disrepair and needed more than $18 billion worth of repairs. VA buildings on average are 60 years old and include 449 from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. He said 591 others are from the First World War era.
The VA spends $25 million a year maintaining 400 vacant buildings and 735 underutilized facilities, Shulkin said.
Shulkin said the department's computer systems also needed modernization. He said he planned to make major decisions on upgrading the systems by July this year.
(Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Grant McCool)