Wisconsin State Council

Time for no more excuses

United States Senate
Committee on Veterans Affairs
Press Release

https://www.veterans.senate.gov/newsroom/majority-news/isakson-to-va-time-for-no-more-excuses 

Isakson to VA: Time for No More Excuses

Calls on VA to address vacant positions, use new legislative tools to improve accountability, benefits, appeals backlog

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, today called on U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin to outline the progress made and challenges faced by the VA in implementing several pieces of critical veterans reform legislation passed by Congress and signed into law in 2017.

"Let me say at the outset that this meeting is not about what's happened in the past," said Isakson in his opening remarks. "It's about what's happening right now to correct some of the things that have happened in the past. This is an accountability meeting."

"I've told the secretary that we want to really take the legislation that we passed last year ...to give them the tools to address the significant problems confronting the veterans of America and begin moving away from the problems of the past and toward the solutions of the future," Isakson continued.

Last year, the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs passed 10 major pieces of veterans legislation -- all of which have been signed into law -- that aim to strengthen veterans' health care, benefits and support.

Of those, Isakson highlighted three specific pieces of legislation during today's hearing that are critical to reforming the department and ensuring that veterans receive quality, timely and efficient services: The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, and the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017.

"I want to thank Secretary Shulkin," said Isakson. "The administration, our veterans and this committee are lucky to have him, but we are at the time where there are no excuses. There are no excuses for why we don't correct the problems we've had with hiring, there are no excuses we don't correct the problems we've had with IT, there is no excuse for not correcting the problems we've had with veterans' appeals, among other areas. So this is all about accountability. It's all about looking at what we have passed and looking for the results that are to come in the future so that we can do a good job for the veterans of the United States of America."

Isakson pointed out the need to pass the pending Caring for Our Veterans Act to streamline and strengthen veterans' healthcare services at the VA and in the community to ensure efficient, timely and quality care. He stated that he expects a proposal from the White House in the coming days to help move forward this legislation that was voted out of the committee by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote on Nov. 29, 2017.

"My goal as chairman of the committee is to find a positive solution no matter what problem I confront, and not that it comes from my wisdom, but my persistence that we see to it that we keep our eye on the goal," said Isakson. "One way or another, it's time our veterans had policies that give them the choices they need."

"Our veterans deserve the best of us, and the best of us is to pass a bill that we can agree on, and the best of us is to find the common ground," Isakson continued. "So I intend to do that, and I appreciate the input the administration has given us, and I look forward to continuing to work with them and our entire committee."

Isakson noted that all of these reforms are complex and require sustained focus from VA senior leadership. That focus must begin with the administration filling critical VA positions, four of which remain vacant: undersecretary for benefits, undersecretary for health, assistant secretary for information technology, and assistant secretary for accountability and whistleblower protection.

"One thing that concerns me deeply are the four positions that remain unfilled at the department," said Isakson. "One is [Secretary Shulkin's] former position, the undersecretary for health. The assistant secretary of accountability and whistleblower protection is not in place. The undersecretary for benefits, which is a critical position the VA needs, need to be in place. And the secretary of information technology, which is absolutely critical, particularly with the Cerner information coming in, has got to be filled somewhere sooner rather than later. We've got to find a way to get the best people in the United States of America in the disciplines, working for the VA and for our veterans."

Isakson noted that veterans are counting on the swift and successful implementation of these legislative reforms. Isakson ended his questions by thanking Veteran Service Organizations for their contributions in the crafting and implementation of VA reforms.

Watch Isakson's opening remarks from the hearing here.

Watch Isakson's questioning of VA Secretary David J. Shulkin here.

Background:

The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act seeks to improve accountability at the VA by increasing the VA's authority to remove employees at all levels of the department, shortening the removal process and ensuring an individual removed from the VA is not kept on the VA's payroll while appealing that decision. It also makes it easier for the VA to remove poor performing senior executives and replace them with qualified candidates. Additionally, any appeals by senior VA executives would no longer be brought before the Merit Systems Protection Board, but instead would be handled directly by the VA secretary under an expedited timeline.

The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 makes much-needed updates for reservists, Purple Heart recipients, veterans who face school closures while enrolled, and surviving family members. Most significantly, this bill eliminates the arbitrary 15-year period within which a veteran is required to use their G.I. Bill and instead allows them to use their benefits at any time in their professional career.

The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 creates three separate paths for veterans to choose from when seeking redress from a decision by the Veterans Benefits Administration on their claims for VA benefits. It also allows certain veterans already going through the appeals process to opt in to the new system. The bill gives the VA secretary the authority to test facets of the new system prior to full implementation and requires the VA to provide a comprehensive plan for both implementing the new system and processing the existing appeals.

The Caring for Our Veterans Act would establish a permanent, streamlined 'Veterans Community Care Program' to provide veterans with access to health care and services in their own communities. Under this legislation, a veteran and his or her doctor will decide where that veteran will receive care, taking into consideration the veteran's healthcare needs and the availability and quality of both VA and community care. In addition, the legislation will help improve existing VA health care and services by removing barriers for VA healthcare professionals to practice telemedicine, strengthening opioid prescription guidelines for VA and partnering community care providers, and eliminating impediments to hiring and retention of VA healthcare professionals. It also expands eligibility for the VA's Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers to veterans of all generations, including Vietnam-era veterans.

VA has four vacant positions that require Senate confirmation:

Undersecretary for Benefits- vacant 825 days since October 2015.

Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology and Chief Information Officer- vacant 362 days since January 2017.

Undersecretary for Health- vacant 337 days since February 2017.

Assistant Secretary for Accountability and Whistleblower Protection- vacant 208 days since June 2017.

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The Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 115th Congress. Isakson is a veteran himself -- having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 -- and has been a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs since he joined the Senate in 2005. Isakson's home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the armed services as well as more than 750,000 veterans



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