During his campaign, President Trump repeatedly made a commitment to our veterans to improve the way our nation takes care of them.
All Americans - whether Democrat or Republican - should share that commitment. Since I first became chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in 2015, that is exactly how I have operated: By working in bipartisan fashion to advance reforms that truly help our nation’s veterans who we have the honor to serve.
After carefully considering a number of potential candidates, President Trump selected a professional who has already helped lead changes over the last year and a half to lead the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dr. David Shulkin became secretary of the second largest agency in the federal government on Feb. 14 after being unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
During Secretary Shulkin’s hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, I committed to continuing to work with him to see to it that the VA provides the best health care system for our veterans.
Over the next two years, as our committee continues to tackle a variety of issues that have plagued the VA and prevented the department from delivering the best possible care for our veterans, we will build on the lessons and successes from the past two years. As a committee, we will focus on three goals: Expanding and improving the Veterans Choice program, significantly lowering wait times for veterans’ appeals and improving accountability at the VA.
Thanks in large part to the success of the Veterans Choice program, which provides more timely appointment options, there were 2.1 million more veterans’ appointments scheduled at the VA in 2016 than the previous year.
Together, my colleagues and I are working to put power back into the hands of our veterans and allow them to choose the health care option that is best for their current situation. Rather than privatizing the VA, our committee wants to help Secretary Shulkin empower it.
When the Veterans Choice program works optimally, not only do the federal government’s costs decrease, but so does the pressure on the VA to build hospitals and buildings. Instead, the VA can take the money saved on facilities to provide higher quality services to veterans.
While our VA hospital and healthcare provider wait times are down, our veterans are still waiting too long on their appeals when trying to claim their veterans benefits. As a committee, we are working closely with the VA to address the appeals backlog and lower the amount of time our veterans wait to get the benefits they earned.
One of the keys to greater success that I will continue to push for at the VA is real accountability.
Secretary Shulkin needs every tool at his disposal to discipline employees found guilty of wrongdoing or misconduct, especially when it is to the detriment of veterans care. When the VA is not holding bad actors accountable, everyone loses. Taxpayer dollars are wasted on employees who are not fully committed to helping our veterans, and other employees at the VA suffer because they are forced to work alongside or take direction from employees who aren’t doing their jobs. Worst of all, our veterans suffer.
Rarely does a week pass without a negative story about the VA. We are all ready for that tide to turn, and the steps I have outlined will help.
The majority of VA employees are hardworking, dedicated men and women who serve our veterans day in and day out. I want to thank those employees and their accomplishments, and I hope we can see a few more positive stories coming out of the VA in the months ahead.
I am committed to doing my part to help the VA earn more positive stories and to ensure the VA is the best health care system possible for our veterans. Together, we can succeed on behalf of those who have given us so much.
Isakson, R-Ga., is chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. This column originally appeared in the Newnan Times-Herald.