The House voted 219 to 201 to pass a bill Thursday expanding collective bargaining rights for health care employees at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA Employee Fairness Act would allow previously restricted issues to be subject to bargaining by Title 38 employees, including professional conduct, peer review and pay errors.

If it passes the Senate, the bill would also allow VA doctors, dentists, registered nurses, physician assistants and others to report inefficiencies and potentially dangerous policies or incidents.

“If we’re going to fill VA’s 39,000 vacancies, we need to ensure VA can continue to recruit and retain top tier medical professionals and provide exemplary care for our nation’s veterans,” said House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano when the bill was introduced in 2021. “By granting these essential healthcare workers full collective bargaining rights, our bill will help make that possible.”

Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said that the bill comes at a critical time when the VA is dealing with significant staffing and funding issues. In the coming years, the department is expecting to treat 3 million more veterans in the VA health care system after the passage of the PACT Act.

“The medical practitioners employed by the VA are the very best healthcare professionals across the United States,” said Erwin in a statement. “Because of this, it is critical that they are allowed to share their professional opinions on matters within their facilities and collectively bargain with management

The Biden-Harris administration also endorsed the bill in writing. President Joe Biden has repeatedly vouched for federal labor protections and has taken several steps through executive orders and the Office of Personnel Management to reverse Trump-era policies that made employee discipline processes more direct.

Maintaining the balance of power

Rep. Takano, a Democrat representing California, said the bill simply equalizes bargaining rights for more than 100,000 frontline VA healthcare workers that their peers in other departments already have.

“VA nurses or technicians should be able to point out wrongdoing without fear of losing their job or other forms of retaliation,” he said “This outdated provision in federal law has become an excuse for VA to deny workers the benefits they have rightfully earned.”

The bill, widely supported by federal employee advocates, received criticism for curtailing the final word of the secretary.

“It’s simple: Congress should not remove the Secretary’s responsibility to veterans and begin allowing non-medical third-party arbitrators to decide issues of direct patient care and clinical competence at VA,” said Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Under current law, the secretary has broad authority to regulate the hours and conditions of employment for medical professionals employed by the Veterans Health Administration, according to the bill’s House report.

Takano dismissed Bost’s concerns, saying that the bill does not create a free-for-all power grab, nor does it lift other federal barriers on bargaining.

He noted that the law still restricts VA workers from striking and bars collective bargaining over the level of their pay, which is set by pay grades. The bill would open other forms of compensation, such as awards, bonuses, overtime, and special scheduling arrangements, to bargaining.

In terms of budgetary effect, the bill could increase personnel costs for the agency since collective bargaining has been known to increase pay in some cases.

Compensation for VHA personnel is funded through annual appropriations, which in 2020, included about $17 billion for this group of employees.

“Under current law, almost all federal employees have basic worker protections through collective bargaining,” Takano said. “This has long been part of the fabric of the federal workforce.”

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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