Opinion Columns & Blogs

Senate committee working for our veterans

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. AP

In Congress, we are responsible for sending our men and women in uniform to the battlefield, and we must ensure their well-being when they return home. Unfortunately, for too long we have heard from our veterans that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs to be more responsive to the veterans it serves. When I became chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at the start of 2015, I made a commitment to work with anyone willing to fix the problems at the VA.

Since that time, our committee has held hearings in Washington, D.C., and across the country, to drill down on these problems and figure out how we could work together to fix them. We made great progress over the last few years, developing legislation and building consensus on proposals that are effective and meet the needs of veterans. But no year has seen more positive, productive and bipartisan progress for our veterans than 2017.

We have one of the most bipartisan and productive committees in the Senate. Every single member of our committee, Republican and Democrat alike, has put aside partisan differences and worked together on behalf of our nation’s veterans. I am so proud to lead this dedicated committee along with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the committee’s ranking Democrat.

In 2017, the Senate’s efforts include the passage of 10 major pieces of veterans legislation — all of which have been signed into law — that reform the VA and strengthen veterans’ health care, benefits and support.

A responsive VA starts with strong leadership. The Senate unanimously confirmed 10 nominees to the VA and the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals. Dr. David Shulkin, confirmed by the Senate 100-0, has done a tremendous job as VA secretary and has been extremely supportive of our efforts in Congress. I’m also especially proud that Tom Bowman, a Marine and our former Senate committee’s staff director, is now VA deputy secretary.

Our veterans depend on the care and benefits they receive at the VA, and there is no excuse for bad employees getting in the way. Before 2017, there was no real accountability at the VA because employees who were found guilty of misconduct could not be disciplined promptly by management. Now, with the passage of the “Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act,” we’ve given VA’s leaders the tools to remove poor-performing or negligent employees.

When the wellbeing and safety of veteran patients are endangered due to substandard care practices, VA must do everything in its power to guarantee expedient and thorough investigations. “The Enhancing Veteran Care Act authorizes VA to contract with non-profits that accredit health care organizations to investigate VA medical centers and improve accountability.

We’ve made significant improvements to the “Veterans Choice Program,” which has taken pressure off of some of VA’s hardworking physicians. Rather than traveling long distances for basic or specialized care, veterans can access timely health care in their own communities. We’re working to continue improving VA’s community care and are committed to moving forward with critical reforms to the program so that veterans can choose his or her health care, whether it be from the VA or the private sector.

Veterans are waiting far too long for an answer on whether the VA will accept their appeal for disability benefits. The VA’s outdated, appeals process means the number of veterans waiting on a decision has grown to an unacceptable level. With the “Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act,” we’re working to break down bureaucratic barriers and help develop an improved, more responsive and quicker system for veterans.

The opioid epidemic affects veterans and non-veterans alike. The “VA Prescription Drug Accountability Act” allows the VA to take every necessary precaution to ensure patients are aware of the dangers of opioid addiction by sharing patient information with state prescription monitoring programs.

The jobs of the 21st century are ever changing, and today’s workers never stop learning. To help our servicemembers’ transition to civilian life and ensure they have education benefits that meet their needs, we passed the “Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act to make lasting reforms to the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Additionally, the “Veterans Apprenticeship and Labor Opportunity Reform (VALOR) Act” streamlines the process for a more timely payment to students under the G.I. Bill apprenticeship program.

When it comes to basic needs like health care, housing and child care, we must deliver for those who served our nation. “The Department of Veterans Affairs Expiring Authorities Act of 2017” reauthorized 20 health care services and programs at the VA for fiscal year 2018. We also increased the rates of VA disability compensation, and dependency compensation for surviving children and spouses, as well as the clothing allowance for veterans based on rising costs of living.

With the cooperation of VA Secretary David Shulkin, a willing president and a Congress working in a bipartisan fashion, I am proud of what our committee has accomplished for veterans.

Our reforms are beginning now, in real time. Within the first year of many of these new programs and reforms, I am confident we will have made a noticeable difference in veterans’ lives.

Our veterans offered their lives on the battlefield and were accountable to us. Now, we’re going to make sure our government is accountable to them.

At the start of 2017, senators on the VA Committee vowed to find common ground on behalf of veterans, and we have significant, positive results to show for it. We still have work to do, but we are heading in the right direction.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.