Supporting Our Veteransby Senator Johnny Isakson
Posted on 2015-12-17
ISAKSON. Mr. President, I think it is important that we pause for
a moment at the end of 2015, look back upon the past 12 months and, in
particular, look at the Veterans Administration and the veterans who
have served our country, looking at the problems that we have solved
and the things we have done to better improve those services.
When the year dawned, we had a scandal in Arizona at a Phoenix hospital. We had bonuses being paid to employees who had not performed. We had medical services that weren't available to veterans who had earned them and deserved them. As a Senate, we came together in the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, which I chair. We had a bipartisan effort to see to it we addressed those problems.
So for just a second I want everyone to pause and realize what we have done bipartisanly and collectively for those who have served our country and the veterans today.
No. 1, 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 with our veterans. It is already working with more psychiatric help available to our veterans, quicker responses for those who seek mental help, better diagnosis of PTSD and TBI, and a reduction in the rate of the suicides that take place in the veterans community. That was affirmative action. It passed 99 to 0--Republicans and Democrats--in the Senate of the United States.
We took the veterans choice bill, which had passed in August of last year, and made it work better for the veterans of our country. In the first 9 months of this year, the Veterans Administration 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, and this is the most important thing of all. In January we got this little 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.
Ranking Member Blumenthal, myself, and the Colorado delegation flew to Denver and brought in the contractors and the VA. We made significant changes. First 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 Corps of Engineers, where construction and engineering was responsible. We told the VA: You may have a $1.385 billion cost overrun, but if you are going to pay for it, we are not going to borrow from China. You are going to find it internally in the $71 billion budget of the Veterans Administration. And they did.
By unanimous consent this Senate and the House of Representatives approved the completion of that hospital, the funding of the shortfall, and the management takeover by the Corps of Engineers. Today it is on progress to be there for the veterans of the Midwest and the West in Denver, CO.
Then we dealt with many other programs, such as homelessness and caregiver benefits to our veterans' caregivers, to see to it we have the very best care possible available.
Then we changed the paradigm. The VA had so many acting appointees and so many unfilled positions that they couldn't function as well as they should. So we went in, and we approved Dr. David Shulkin to be the under secretary for medicine. We took LaVerne Council and approved her to be the head of information technology. We took former Congressman Michael Michaud and made him the Assistant Secretary 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 are already seeing a benefit in health delivery services, planning for IT coordination, and, hopefully, interoperability between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense in terms of medical records, which is so important.
But we also did something else. We said we are no longer going to tolerate scandals in the VA or look the other way, and we are not going to pay rewards and bonuses to people who aren't doing the job. As you heard earlier today with Senator Cassidy from Louisiana and Senator Ayotte from New Hampshire, with the help of Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, we are going to pass legislation that is going to hold VA employees accountable, have a record if they are not performing, and in the future prevent any Veterans Administration employee who is not doing a job from getting a bonus for a job that is not well done. That is 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 lost revenue to the VA--funds that were given to VA people for transferring, some of them within the same geographic area where they originally were working. We told Secretary McDonald: You need to go in there, and you need to clean this thing up. To his credit, the Secretary did, and to his credit, the former brigadier general who was the head of that department retired. He resigned from the VA rather than face the music in terms of the investigation.
But we took affirmative action to see to it we would have no more scandals. We want zero tolerance for poor performance, and we want to reward good performance, but that is the way it needs to be. It is very important also to understand that we have goals for the future. We are going to continue as a committee with the VA leadership on a quarterly basis. Senator Blumenthal and I go to meet with the leadership of the VA to see what they are doing and to share with them the frustration we [[Page S8780]] have in the House and the Senate about things that aren't going right, but to share with them the joy we have with the things that they are doing to improve.
Then we have set goals for next year, a full implementation of the Veterans Choice Program and a consolidation of all veterans' benefits and VA benefits to see to it that veterans get timely appointments and good-quality services from the physicians in the VA or physicians in their communities.
We are going to improve the experience of our servicemembers in transitioning from Active Duty to Veterans Affairs. Quite frankly, today that is the biggest problem we have in the country. Active-Duty servicemembers who leave service and go to veteran status fall into a black hole. There is no interoperability of VA and DOD health care records and electronic records. There is no transition in the handoff. We are going to see that change.
We are going to improve the experience of women veterans, including protecting victims of military sexual trauma.
We are going to combat veteran homelessness and meet the goal of the President to get it to zero. We have already reduced it by a third.
We are going to ensure access to mental health so no veteran who finds himself in trouble doesn't have immediate access to counsel. On that point, I commend the Veterans Administration for the hotline. The suicide prevention hotline that they established has helped to save lives in this country this year, and we are going to continue to see to it that we have more and more access for our veterans.
Simply put, we are going to make the Veterans Administration work for the veterans and work for the American people. We are going to have accountability of the employees. We are going to reward good behavior, and we are not going to accept bad behavior. In the end, we are going to take the veteran of America, who served his or her country, and make sure that they get every benefit that is promised to them and that it is delivered in a high-quality fashion. We are going to do it working together as Republicans and Democrats and as Members of the Senate to do so.
As we close this year, I wish 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 Veterans Administration and to remember this season of the year in Christmas the great gift we have had to all of us of our veterans who have served us, many of whom have sacrificed and some of whom have died to see that America remains the strongest, most peaceful, and freest country on the face of this Earth.
With that, I pause and yield back the remainder of my time.
The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. Sasse). The Senator from Oklahoma.