Key members of Congress are vowing to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs follows through on reforms designed to alleviate long wait times at VA facilities that brought down the organization’s top leadership last year.
Top legislators in the House and Senate veterans committees said they would scrutinize how the VA’s new leaders spend more than $16 billion in emergency funding approved last year to reform the ailing department.
Fighting veteran suicide and ensuring female veterans get adequate care also tops lawmakers’ goals this year.
“Job one at the veterans committee is making sure the Veterans choice bill is implemented,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “That is a monumental task right now.”
The bill, signed by President Barack Obama in August, aims to unclog a backlog of veterans waiting for appointments, by providing funding for them to see non-VA doctors. It also provided funding for hiring new VA medical personnel and gave the VA secretary wider power to fire underperforming senior employees.
Mr. Isakson said the sheer number of veterans affected by the bill presents problems bringing it to fruition.
The act, which allows veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment, or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, to seek treatment at non-VA facilities. From June to November, the period the department has tracked, VA authorized 1.5 million non-VA appointments, a 47% increase over the same period in 2013, according to the VA.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he wants to ensure VA is enacting the law as Congress intended, including making sure rural veterans have adequate access to non-VA health care. He also said the House committee will push the VA to move aggressively in firing senior employees. “We’re trying to give the secretary every tool to hold people accountable,” he said.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald took over in July after a scandal, including falsification of patient wait-time records, that prompted the resignation of top VA officials, including then-Secretary Eric Shinseki. Since then, Mr. McDonald has traveled across the country meeting veterans and employees and working to implement change.
“A-plus effort for the secretary. He is out there every day trying to restore confidence,” said Mr. Miller.
Mr. Isakson said he gives the secretary high marks but said the department, with a more-than $160 billion budget, will take time to change. “Anybody who thinks you can make an instantaneous change at an organization with more than 300,000 employees is just kind of crazy,” he said.
Legislators began this session by reintroducing a veteran suicide-prevention bill that passed the House last year but was scuttled in the Senate by the efforts of Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) who resigned at the end of the 113th congress.
Passing that bill “is my first legislative priority,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), the new ranking member, or most senior democrat, on the Senate VA committee. He wants to focus on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury in returning veterans. He also said he wants to crack down on predatory lenders targeting veterans.
Mr. Blumenthal also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and said he wants to better connect Department of Defense and VA programs to streamline veteran transition into the civilian sector. “Right now, there’s too much disconnect between the two,” he said.