FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Contact: Amanda Maddox (Isakson) 202-224-7777
Maria McElwain (Blumenthal) 202-224-6452
Senate VA Committee: Senate Must Act on Veterans First Act
Bipartisan legislation passed committee by unanimous vote, would bring accountability reform to VA
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, respectively, along with other members of the committee, joined together on the Senate floor to urge fellow senators to allow a vote on the Veterans First Act, bipartisan legislation that will strengthen accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Last week, the VA announced that it would no longer use its expedited removal authority to hold VA executives accountable after the Justice Department decided not to defend a provision in current accountability law against a constitutional challenge from a VA executive who was fired in the Phoenix wait-time scandal.
The Veterans First Act, which has 44 Senate co-sponsors, is the only piece of accountability legislation that would withstand this constitutional challenge. The bill, which passed the Senate VA Committee unanimously, is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.
“Our veterans served and fought for us, risked their lives for us and in some cases some died for us. They deserve the respect, the treatment and benefits they were promised when they signed up for duty,” said Isakson. “I want to thank all members of the committee, and I want to thank the 44 members of the Senate who already cosponsored the Veterans First Act and ask the remaining 56 to be a part of it. We owe our veterans no less than our absolute commitment to match the commitment they made to us. It is time that veterans got the accountability for the benefits they’ve earned, the health care they deserve and the VA that means what it says when it says it will take care of the veterans of the United States.”
“We must seize this opportunity no matter which side of the aisle we may sit on to move this bill forward,” said Blumenthal. “We must keep faith with our veterans, leave no veteran behind, and make sure that we honor their service by fulfilling our obligation to do our job. Our job now is to make sure that we pass the Veterans First Act. I challenge my colleagues to pass this bill before the Fourth of July and to address the challenge of providing veterans what they have earned. This measure is bipartisan. No reason that merits it being stopped or blocked. And so I challenge my colleagues to move forward with this measure.”
“Secretary McDonald set a dangerous precedent by ignoring the law passed by Congress to hold VA employees accountable,” said U.S. Senator John Boozman, R-Ark. “This is why it’s even more imperative that the Senate pass the Veterans First Act. We need to ensure the VA has the tools—and the will—to ensure the small number of employees who abuse their positions do not undermine the great work being done by the vast majority of VA employees around the country.”
“Veterans in South Dakota – and across the entire country – continue to experience problems with health care delivery at the VA, including backlogs, long wait times and frequent billing errors,” said U.S. Senator Mike Rounds, R-S.D. “As we seek to address these issues within the entire VA system, accountability is as important as it has ever been. The Veterans First Act takes meaningful steps to hold the VA accountable and – in turn – improve care for our nation’s veterans, which is the most important priority of all.”
“We have to increase accountability at the VA,” said U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, R-N.C. “Yet, we are now hearing Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in consultation with the President, has decided not to defend The Veterans Choice Act against a constitutional challenge, and the VA has decided to no longer use its expedited removal authority to hold senior executives accountable. We need to get back to what we tried to accomplish in The Veterans Choice Act, fire people who are not doing their job, fire people who are being unethical, and fire people who are not putting veterans at the top of their list.”
“It is imperative that we restore the bond of trust between the VA and the veterans the VA serves because we all know that bond of trust has eroded,” said U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. “A dangerous precedent has been set by the head of the VA and the Attorney General of the United States, in substituting the judgment of the Congress, and gutting the accountability provisions already signed into law by the President in 2014. It is a precedent that I don't think anyone in the U.S. Senate would agree with. They must remember that the leadership of the VA works for our veterans, and when our veterans see people getting away with malfeasance and incorrect behavior, that trust is further eroded. Passing legislation like the Veterans First Act is a step towards restoring that trust.”
“The VA’s problems are not budgetary or a matter of supply and demand, they are based on poor resource management and a lack of leadership to use the authorities that are in the best interest of veterans and the VA workforce,” said U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kan. “It is critical that the Veterans First Act becomes law to increase accountability for wrongdoers in the VA system. Veterans deserve a VA worthy of their service and sacrifice.”
Click here to watch the senators’ remarks.
Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, was fired in 2014 in the wake of the VA wait-time scandal. Helman sued for her job back, saying the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 is unconstitutional, partly because it does not allow executives to appeal to the full Merit Systems Protection Board, only to an administrative judge at the board.
The Justice Department announced that it is refusing to mount a defense against this claim by Helman, saying current law violates the Appointments Clause of the Constitution because the administrative judges are not presidentially appointed whereas members of the board are.
In the wake of that decision by the Justice Department, the VA last week informed the committee that the department would not use any of the accountability reforms established in the Veterans Choice Act to remove executives.
The Veterans First Act removes the Merit Systems Protection Board from the appeal process for senior executives altogether, avoiding this constitutionality challenge. The Veterans First Act passed the Senate VA Committee by unanimous vote and awaits action by the full Senate.
In addition to Isakson and Blumenthal, the Veterans First Act is also cosponsored by U.S. Senators. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., John Boozman, R-Ark., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio., Richard Burr, R-N.C., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Robert Casey, D-Pa., Dan Coats, R-Ind., Steve Daines, R-Mont., Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Al Franken, D-Minn., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Dean Heller, R-Nev., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, John Hoeven, R-N.D., Tim Kaine, D-Va., Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Rob Portman, R-Ohio., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, Jon Tester, D-Mont., Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Tom Udall, D-N.M., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
The Veterans First Act is also supported by The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, Student Veterans of America, Office of Special Counsel, Government Accountability Project, National Association of State Approving Agencies, National Guard Association of the U.S., Veterans Education Success, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), American Veterans (AMVETS), Project on Government Oversight, National Alliance to End Homelessness, National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs and Military Officers Association of America.
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.