U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law Friday a bill that will make it easier to fire Department of Veterans Affairs employees, a development that has union officials concerned the measure could be misused for political purposes.
The signing is the latest step in an effort by the Trump administration to strengthen an agency that provides health care and other services to millions of military veterans.
"Our veterans have fulfilled their duty to this nation and now we must fulfill our duty to them," the president said at a White House signing ceremony.
Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail to improve health care services for veterans and the efficiency of the agency, which was rocked by scandal several years ago.
At the VA medical center in the southwestern city of Phoenix, Arizona, some veterans died in 2014 while awaiting treatment. Other scandals that year involved long wait times for medical treatment and attempted cover-ups by agency employees.
"What happened was a national disgrace," Trump said, "and yet some of the employees involved in these scandals remained on the payrolls."
The president signed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, which enjoys broad bipartisan support and was approved in the Senate on June 6.
The measure makes it easier to fire workers for misconduct and provides additional protections for whistleblowers. It lowers the standard of evidence needed to fire employees.
Unions representing some VA workers, including the American Federation of Government Employees, are concerned the measure could be abused for political reasons.
"Although marketed as a bill to make it easier to fire bad employees, the proposals are designed to kill off and bury the apolitical Civil Service," AFGE President David Cox, Sr. said at a May 17 Senate hearing. "It makes it just as easy to fire a good employee, an innocent employee, as it will be to fire a bad employee."
The legislation aims to accelerate the process of disciplining and firing workers. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs says it currently takes up to one year to dismiss a permanent federal employee.
The act will also create a new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection in response to concerns the new law may be used to inappropriately discipline whistleblowers, who helped expose the VA's scandals in 2014.
Supporters and opponents of the bill believe civil servants in other government agencies could use it as a model as they seek to hold employees accountable for misconduct.