[EDITOR’sS NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect new information provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs the day after the president’s speech.]
WASHINGTON — In his first State of the Union speech Tuesday, President Donald Trump boasted that his administration has begun cleaning up the Department of Veterans Affairs by getting rid of problematic workers thanks to new accountability legislation passed by Congress last summer.
During the address, Trump said that his administration’s actions over the last year have shown that “we are serving our brave veterans, including giving our veterans choice in their health care decisions.”
Among the accomplishments was his signing of the VA Accountability Act last June, which eased hiring and firing rules for tens of thousands of VA workers.
“Since its passage, my administration has already removed more than 1,500 VA employees who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve,” Trump said. “And we are hiring talented people who love our vets as much as we do.”
But VA records posted on the department’s new accountability website did not reflect those figures during the Tuesday evening speech. Firing data made public by the Department of Veterans Affairs only showed 1,046 worker removals since mid-June, after the new legislation was signed.
On Wednesday, following questions about Trump’s speech assertions, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the firing total also includes 691 probationary dismissals not previously made public by the department.
With those additional dismissals, the total of employees forced out since the new legislation was passed is more than 1,700.
Earlier this month, in response to Military Times queries about the law’s effects, VA officials called it “one of the most significant federal civil service reforms in decades” and said the new authorities were “helping instill across the department the type of workforce accountability veterans and taxpayers deserve.”
Federal union officials have also questioned the effectiveness of the new law, saying that its impact unfairly hits lower-level workers instead of senior officials more responsible for systemic VA problems.
Cashour stressed that the president’s figures were accurate, even if the publicly available data was incomplete. He also said information on probationary dismissals will be made public by the department in all future updates.
Hiring new workers has also continued to remain a difficulty for VA officials even since the new law’s passage.
Earlier this month, in testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, current VA Secretary David Shulkin told lawmakers that while the new law has reduced some challenges with bringing on new employees, finding candidates for certain specialties — like mental health care — continues to be a challenge.
In his Tuesday address, Trump also vowed that “I will not stop until our veterans are properly taken care of, which has been my promise to them from the very beginning of this great journey.”
He also said Americans should “celebrate our police, our military, and our amazing veterans as heroes who deserve our total and unwavering support.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.