Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
The Veterans Affairs Department is the second-largest federal bureaucracy, yet it is the first in need of major reform.
Republican majorities in both the House and Senate attempted sweeping reforms in the 114th Congress, but gridlock in the Senate was largely responsible for stalling many of these much-needed changes.
Although Republicans now have an even narrower majority in the Senate, there is a new opportunity for lawmakers and staff to move forward with a new agenda of smart, strategic and bold reforms that will enable the VA to return to its proper role of efficiently serving all eligible veterans.
Among the first priorities of the new veterans affairs committees likely will be picking back up on the 30-plus House-passed bills that were nearing fruition in 2016. An early portfolio of small and medium-sized victories on VA legislation in the first session of the 115th can help prove Republicans are capable of getting important legislation passed and signed into law by the new administration.
After tackling the low-hanging fruit, the committees will need to tackle a few other unresolved and crucially important issues facing the VA system, chief among which are personnel accountability and the department's new budget.
While Congress has for years fully funded the administration's budget requests for VA, observers and advocates have long argued that those requests are systematically low-balled by the White House to begin with. If this continues in the new administration's budgets, the VA committees may need to consider going the way of the armed services committees, which are infamous for funding hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of necessary expenditures over and above what successive administrations have requested.
Then there's the elusive issue of accountability at the VA. Public-sector unions have had such clenched fists around the White House, the VA and some in Congress that they have been able to obstruct even obvious reforms of the VA's entire personnel accountability system. Members of Congress will have to muster up the fortitude to tackle this issue in such a way that it sends a shock wave through the system. Employees who cannot adapt and commit to avoiding egregious criminal behavior will be welcome to tender their resignations.
The veterans affairs community will also need to reform and closely monitor implementation of the VA's external care initiatives. Access to the highest quality health care in veterans' local communities, whether at a VA facility or from a private provider, is not only necessary and an obligation; it's also a veteran's right under law. The veterans affairs policy community will need to step up its game in forcing VA to honor both the spirit and letter of the laws that were passed to guarantee access to prompt care. Congress will need to finish consolidating and then fortify this benefit, including writing more detailed legislation on the topic to prevent a repeat of the program's initial derailment by VA.
The VA committees also likely will take another look at the issue of prescription drug pricing. With the nation's dealmaker-in-chief coming into the White House in January and aiming to reduce the size of the federal budget, the deals that the VA has made on prescription drugs — not to mention medical supplies, construction projects, custom-built software and technology, and much more — surely will get a thorough re-examination, and many of these contracts are likely to be very forcefully renegotiated.
Finding efficiencies and savings within VA's operations and budget will become increasingly important as the agency becomes responsible for providing more and more care to an aging population of middle-aged veterans. The masses of young, healthy 20-somethings that went to war 10 and 15 years ago are 30- and 40-somethings now and will soon be approaching their 50s. The committees will have to use their oversight roles to closely examine and sharply question the VA's predictions, projections, and assumptions in order to ensure that this anticipated explosion in demand is adequately accounted for.
And unfortunately for existing budgets, Congress should also go ahead and do the right thing by veterans who have suffered alone for years from service-related toxic exposures. While the full reach and effects of these exposures may not yet be known or documented, Congress will ultimately have to step up and deal with it and the sooner the better — financially and morally.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sunshine Sachs
Finally, the veterans affairs committees should continue their role as aggressive independent investigators, auditors and arbiters. VA is not a private company and it is not an independent agency. Whoever the new VA secretary is needs to recognize this limitation on his independence as an agency head and submit to the authority and proper role of Congress in the oversight and administration of the department.
If the House and Senate step up to such an agenda and aggressively take on the responsibilities and reforms still needed at the Veterans Affairs Department, VA will no doubt come out better and stronger than ever. And so will the veterans it serves.
Alexander Nicholson is a political consultant, strategist, and published author based in Washington, D.C. He previously worked in veterans and defense policy advocacy for 10 years.