WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, authored the following opinion piece on the Veterans First Act, a comprehensive bill he introduced to help change the culture of corruption at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The bill includes improved accountability measures to give the VA the tools to fire bad actors, to prohibit bonuses for employees accused of wrongdoing and to institute protections for whistle blowers.
OP-ED As published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
By U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
Two years ago, the nation watched in horror as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) wait-time scandal unfolded at the Phoenix VA Medical Center. VA employees were making veterans wait so long for appointments that some veterans were dying because of it.
As the VA and Congress worked in tandem to clean up that mess, other scandals have continued to make headlines around the country: VA executives fraudulently collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in relocation expenses; VA health care workers over-prescribing opiate drugs; VA managers allowing a hospital construction project to go $1 billion over budget.
With each new scandal, what became abundantly clear is that the VA lacks the tools to discipline or remove its bad actors. VA Secretary Robert McDonald himself has admitted that there is a serious lack of accountability among his 335,000 employees.
When the VA cannot hold negligent employees accountable, everyone loses. Taxpayer dollars are wasted on employees who are not fully committed to helping our veterans. Other employees at the VA suffer because they are forced to work with delinquent supervisors or coworkers. Most egregiously, our veterans suffer because the people responsible for caring for them are putting themselves first – not our veterans.
Since taking over as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I’ve been working to change the culture of corruption at the VA. I’m proud to say that we now have a bill that will give the VA the tools it needs to properly hold all of its employees accountable. The Veterans First Act will force the VA to put veterans first and ensure that no ineffective, incompetent employees get in the way of the delivery of care and benefits to our veterans.
The Veterans First Act takes accountability further than any previous reforms. It increases the VA’s authority to remove all employees at all levels of the department. It expedites the appeal process to ensure that employees will not be able to just remain on the VA payroll indefinitely waiting for their disciplinary appeal that, until now, could take hundreds of days.
The Veterans First Act also specifically focuses on VA senior executives, many of whom have been at the center of the VA’s scandals. Our bill will make it easier for the VA to remove poor performing senior executives and replace them with qualified candidates. Any appeals by senior VA executives would no longer go to the Merit Systems Protection Board, but instead would be handled directly by the VA secretary.
The Veterans First Act also includes a number of other provisions to hold employees accountable, such as prohibiting the VA from awarding bonuses to bad actors and protecting whistleblowers so that VA employees are not afraid to speak up when they see something or someone getting in the way of our veterans receiving the care they deserve.
Holding VA employees accountable is critical, but we have gone even further to make improvements to the care and benefits we give our veterans. The Veterans First Act includes measures to expand the VA program that allows seriously ill veterans to receive care in their own homes. The bill builds on the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act to address veterans’ mental health care needs. It includes a pilot program to address the massive backlog of veterans’ appeals, which right now stands at 445,000 disability claims appeals. It expands Post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility to thousands of Reservists and National Guardsmen. It addresses the national epidemic of opioid over-prescription among veterans, and it clarifies eligibility for interment at Arlington National Cemetery, among many other reforms.
When the wait-time scandal erupted at the Phoenix VA Medical Center almost two years ago, it became clear that some at the VA had lost sight of the agency’s core mission – to put our veterans first. The Veterans First Act will go a long way to ensure the VA gets back on track and to change the culture of corruption at VA. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I will do everything I can to get this key reform legislation to the president’s desk.
###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.