Senator Johnny Isakson is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Committee and his office issued the following yesterday:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, December 18, 2015
Contact: Amanda Maddox, 202-224-7777
Lauren Gaydos, 202-224-9126
Isakson Highlights 2015 Accomplishments for Veterans, Looks Ahead to Next Year
“We’re going to make the VA work for veterans.”
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, spoke on the Senate floor last week to highlight the Senate’s many accomplishments to help veterans get the care and benefits they deserve:
“I think it is important that we pause for a moment at the end of the 2015 [and] look back upon the last 12 months. Particularly, we look back at the Department of Veterans (VA) and the veterans that have served our country and reflect on the problems that we have solved and the things we want done to better improve those services.
“When the year dawned, we had a scandal in Arizona at the Phoenix VA hospital. We had bonuses being paid to employees who had not performed, we had medical services that weren’t available to the veterans who had earned them and deserved them. And we as a Senate came together in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which I chair, [and] had a bipartisan effort to see to it we addressed those problems. So for just a second I want take a moment to highlight what we have done… collectively and in a bipartisan way for those who have served our country and our veterans today.
“Number one, by the end of January we had passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act to deal with the growing problem of suicide of our veterans. This law is already working with more psychiatric help available to our veterans, quicker responses for those who seek mental health, better diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury and a reduction in the rate of suicide that takes place in our veteran community. That was affirmative action, passed 99-0, Republicans and Democrats, in the Senate of the United States.
“We took the Veterans Choice Act, which had just passed in August of 2014, and made it work better for the veterans of our country. In the first nine months of this year, the VA fulfilled 7.5 million more individual appointments for veterans and benefits than they had in the preceding year, all because we made the private sector a part of the VA and allowed veterans to go to the doctor of their choice under certain qualified situations. We made access easier, we made access better, and because of that, we made health care better.
“Then we addressed the Denver crisis. In January we got a note from the VA that they had a $1.3 billion cost overrun on a $1.7 billion hospital. A 328 percent increase in cost with no promise that it would go down. [Senate VA Committee] Ranking Member Blumenthal and myself and the Colorado delegation flew to Denver, brought in the contractors in the VA [and] we made significant changes. First of all, we took the VA out of the construction business. They had proven they didn't deserve the ability to manage that much money or to build things. Their job was to deliver health care. We took the construction and put it in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers where construction and engineering is responsible.
“We told the VA you may have a $1.385 billion cost overrun, but if you're going to pay for it, we’re not going to borrow it from China. You’re going to find it internally in the $71 billion budget of the VA. And they did. By unanimous consent, this Senate and the House of Representatives approved the completion of that hospital, the funding of the shortfall, the management takeover to the Corps of Engineers, and today it's on schedule to be completed for the veterans of the Midwest and the West in Denver, Colorado.
“Then we dealt with many other programs like homelessness and caregiver benefits to our veterans’ caregivers to see to it we had the very best care possibly available.
“Then we changed the paradigm in terms of the VA. The VA had so many acting appointees and so many unfilled leadership positions that they couldn't function as well as they should. So we went in and we approved Dr. David Shulkin to be Under Secretary for Health. We took LaVerne Council and approved her to be Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology. We took former Congressman Michael Michaud and made him the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Labor for Veterans’ Employment and Training. We put highly qualified people who knew what they were doing in positions where we had vacancies. We’re already seeing a benefit in health delivery services and planning for information and technology coordination and hopefully inter-operability between the VA and Department of Defense in terms of transition of medical records, which is so important.
“But we also did another thing. We said we're no longer going to tolerate scandals in the VA or look the other way, and we're not going to pay rewards and bonuses to people who aren’t doing the job. …We’re going to pass legislation that’s going to hold the VA accountable, have an [employee] record if they're not performing, and in the future prevent any VA employee who is not doing their job from getting a bonus for a job that's not well-done. That's the way it works in the private sector. It ought to be the way it works in the government.
“Then we took another problem. We took the problem of the scandal in the VA relocation benefits which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue to the VA, funds that were… used for transferring some employees within the same geographic area where they were originally working and we told Secretary McDonald to… get in there and clean this [scandal] up. As a result, the former Brigadier General, retired, who was the head of that department, resigned from the VA rather than face the music in terms of the investigation.
“We took affirmative action to see to it that we’d have no more scandals. We have zero tolerance for poor performers and we want to reward good performance. That's the way it needs to be. It's very important to also understand that we have goals for the future. We're going to continue to meet as a committee with the VA leadership on a quarterly basis. Senator Blumenthal and I go and meet with the leadership to see what they're doing and share with them the frustration we have in the House and Senate about things that aren't going right, but share with them the joy we are hearing with the things they're doing to improve.
“And then we’ve set goals for next year. A full implementation of Veterans Choice Program that includes the consolidation of all veterans’ non-VA health care to see to it the veterans get timely appointments and good quality services from the physicians in the VA or physicians in their community.
“We're going to improve the experience of our service members in transitioning from active duty to veteran status. Quite frankly today that’s the biggest problem we have in the country. Active duty service members who leave service and go to veteran status fall in a black hole. There is no inter-operability of VA and DoD health care records and electronic records. There’s no transition and handoff. We’re going to see to it that that changes.
“We’re going to improve the experience of women veterans including protecting victims of military sexual trauma. We're going to combat veteran homelessness and… go from the goal of the president to get it to zero. We've already reduced it by a third.
“We're going to ensure access to mental health so no veteran that finds himself in trouble is unable to have immediate access to counseling. And on that point, I want to commend the VA for the suicide prevention hotline which has helped to save lives in this country this year. We're going to continue to see to it that we have more and more access for our veterans.
“Simply put, we’re going to make the VA work for the veterans and work for the American people. We're going to have accountability of the employees. We're going to reward good behavior and we’re not going to accept bad behavior. And in the end we're going to take the veterans of America who serve their country and make sure they get every benefit that's promised to them and delivered in a high quality fashion. And we're going to do it working together as Republicans and Democrats and as members of the Senate.
“As we close this year, I just want to pause and thank the members of the Senate for their unanimous bipartisan support for the significant changes we have made to address the problems of the Department of Veterans Affairs and to remember this holiday season the great gift we have all received which are our veterans who have served us, many of whom have sacrificed, and some of whom have died to see to it that America remains the strongest, most peaceful and freest country on the face of this earth.”
Watch Isakson’s full floor speech online here. Last month, Isakson sent a letter in honor of Veterans Day to members of the Senate thanking them for their work to help veterans.
The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 114th 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 VA Committee 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 military as well as more than 750,000 veterans.