VA improved, but has long way to go

The World War II Memorial at the Georgia War Veterans Memorial Complex, commemorating the Georgians who died in the war.

The World War II Memorial at the Georgia War Veterans Memorial Complex, commemorating the Georgians who died in the war.

Last year, we all watched with horror as a devastating scandal unfolded at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans around the country were dying as they waited for care. The resulting investigation revealed more tragedies, seemingly every day. As a Senate, we came together to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 to give veterans the access they needed to quality health care and to begin to clean up an agency in total disarray.

When I took over as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at the beginning of this year, almost a year after the scandal broke, I dedicated my service as chairman to 1st Lt. Noah Harris of Georgia, who died in Iraq in 2005. His motto was, “I do what I can.” I promised to do everything I could to help the brave men and women who served our country like Noah. I’m proud to report the committee and Senate have been working together to do what we can to serve our veterans – and we’re seeing results.

At the beginning of this year, I laid out five broad goals for the committee to pursue during my time as chairman: Overseeing the implementation of the Veterans Choice Program, improving the experience of service members transitioning from active duty to veteran status, protecting victims of military sexual trauma, combating veteran homelessness, and ensuring the VA provides access to mental health care for veterans.

The largest undertaking we have had as a committee has been holding the scandal-plagued VA accountable through our critical oversight. So far, we have held committee oversight hearings to address all five of these goals.

This year, we left the comfort of the U.S. Capitol and brought our committee’s oversight directly to the VA to hear firsthand from the leadership and rank-and-file employees what actions they’re taking on behalf of our veterans. We have traveled to Denver to address the rampant mismanagement of the construction of the VA medical center there. We went to Gainesville, Ga., and Eagle River, Alaska, to look at the implementation of the Veterans Choice Program. Recently, we went to Phoenix to assess the aftermath of the wait time scandal.

We take our responsibility to hold the VA accountable very seriously, and I look forward to more committee oversight hearings and visits next year, particularly to address the VA’s information and technology strategy and to examine the department’s backlog of disability appeals.

As the most bipartisan committee in the Senate, our members have worked together to craft meaningful legislation that will have a huge impact on the lives of veterans across the country.

The first thing the Senate did this year was pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, a bill I’m particularly proud of because it addresses the terrible problem of suicide among veterans.

We’ve passed numerous provisions to improve the Veterans Choice Program so that qualified veterans have more access to care outside the VA. To cut down on the bureaucracy that has plagued the department, we required the VA to develop a plan to consolidate all non-VA health care options into one Choice Program. Implementing this plan will be one of my top priorities next year.

Following the mismanagement and billion-dollar cost overruns at the Denver VA hospital, we also took action to reform the VA’s construction programs so that magnitude of waste of taxpayer dollars does not happen again.

All of these important provisions have been signed into law and are already having a positive impact on the lives of our veterans. And at the committee level, we have passed legislation that goes even further to hold bad actors at the VA appropriately accountable, as well as to improve veterans’ health care and benefits, which I strongly encourage the Senate to pass when we return next year.

While negative headlines about the Department of Veterans Affairs have continued through the year, there’s another side to the story, and that is what our committee and Congress has been doing to help veterans. I’m the first to admit there is still much more work to be done, but we’ve been working hard to begin making the necessary changes to ensure veterans will be well-served moving forward.

I’m proud of the work the Senate has done, and I’m committed to keep working hard next year so veterans get the care and services they deserve.

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