On Memorial Day, we pause to remember and honor the men and women who have given their lives in defense of our country. We know all too well that freedom is not free, and as leaders of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, we are honored to have the opportunity to serve those who have worn the uniform and their families.
To ensure our nation's veterans have access to the best possible care, support and benefits that they have earned, we are working to accomplish three important goals in the Senate VA committee: To expand and improve the Veterans Choice Program, to significantly lower wait times on veterans' appeals related to benefits claims, and to improve accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
With the enactment of the Veterans Choice Program, designed to provide veterans with more timely appointment options, there were 2.1 million more veterans' appointments in the VA in 2016 than the previous year. Last month, President Trump signed into law the Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act, legislation that we introduced to ensure veterans would continue to have access to timely care in their own communities while setting the stage for further reforms to the program.
In the coming weeks, our committee will meet to examine this important program and discuss our efforts to make major improvements and secure the future of the Veterans Choice Program.
We are also working to reform the VA's current appeals process, as our veterans are still waiting too long on their appeals when trying to gain access to VA benefits and services. The VA's current appeals process is in desperate need of updating — nearly half a million veterans are in limbo because of the VA's existing backlog.
To address this serious problem and help ensure veterans get an answer from the VA on their appeals, we introduced the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 that will overhaul the current appeals process at VA. We are committed to working closely with the VA to address the existing backlog and lower the amount of time our veterans wait to get the benefits they deserve.
Finally, one of the keys to greater success that we will continue to push for is true accountability at the VA.
Last month, we stood by President Trump and Secretary David Shulkin as they took administrative action to help improve the culture at the VA through the establishment of an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. While a positive step forward, more needs to be done by Congress.
President Trump called for legislation to give the VA the tools it needs to adequately hold all of its employees accountable, and we answered his call by introducing the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act with Sen. Marco Rubio. Our committee passed this bipartisan accountability legislation earlier this week, and it now heads to the full Senate for a vote.
We are working closely with our colleagues to ensure this legislation quickly reaches the president's desk, as Secretary Shulkin needs every tool at his disposal to discipline employees found guilty of wrongdoing. We are committed to ensuring that bad actors at the VA do not get in the way of the delivery of quality care and timely benefits to our veterans.
As chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, we are committed to doing our part to help the VA succeed and ensure that the VA is the best health care system possible for our veterans.
On this day, we pause to remember those who have perished while fighting for our freedom. In the days ahead, we push on for those who have returned home, in honor of those who did not.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., left, confers with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, during the panel's Feb. 1 confirmation hearing for then-VA Secretary-nominee David Shulkin.
Photo Credit: Senate Veterans Affairs Committee
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is the committee's ranking member.