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, nor those of the Defense Department.
America is the greatest country in the world because of those who have put their lives on the line to defend it, and we have an obligation to serve those who have served us. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I am committed to helping ensure that our veterans who have borne the battle receive quality care and services they can count on.
We’re all too aware of the problems of the past that have plagued the Department of Veterans Affairs, from long wait times to a corrosive culture among employees, staffing shortages, absent leadership and inadequate care for our nation’s veterans. While improvements have been made in a number of areas, we knew there was more work to do and set out to make changes to the department.
Since the start of this Congress on Jan. 3, 2017, our committee has held more than two dozen hearings to drill down on problems confronting the VA, to hear from officials as well as stakeholders like veterans’ service organizations, and to figure out how we could work together to address the challenges facing the VA. Over the last 18 months, we have made great progress, developing legislation and building consensus on proposals that are effective and meet the needs of veterans.
In 2017 and 2018, the Senate’s efforts on behalf of our nation’s veterans include the passage of 18 major pieces of veterans’ legislation — all of which have been signed into law — that reform the VA and strengthen veterans’ health care, benefits and services. Additionally, the Senate has confirmed 14 nominees to the VA and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to ensure strong leadership is in place to oversee the implementation of these reforms.
To ensure our veterans have access to the best possible care, support and benefits that they have earned, we passed landmark legislation to dramatically improve the way the VA delivers health care. The VA MISSION Act removes barriers and finally gives veterans the option to receive care in the community when and where it makes sense for them.
Before now, there was no real accountability at the VA because management could not adequately discipline employees who were found guilty of misconduct. We passed the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which finally gave VA leaders the tools to remove poor-performing or negligent employees and formalized a process for protecting the rights of whistleblowers. Since being signed into law, more than 2,800 VA employees have been removed under this new authority.
For years, veterans have been waiting far too long for a decision from VA on their benefits claims appeals. The VA’s woefully outdated appeals process led to a backlog of nearly half a million veterans waiting on a decision on their claims. With the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, we overhauled the appeals system to break down bureaucratic barriers and help develop an improved, more responsive and quicker system for veterans.
The jobs of the 21st century are ever changing, and today’s workforce never stops learning. To help our service members transition to civilian life and ensure they have education benefits that meet their needs, we passed the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act to make lasting reforms to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This is a truly meaningful victory for our veterans, who should have every opportunity available to them to pursue their desired profession and career after they return from duty.
Our committee, along with the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and President Trump and the administration, have worked hard to reform the VA and ensure that our veterans receive the care and benefits they deserve.
This week, Robert Wilkie was sworn in as the 10th secretary of the VA. The VA needs a leader who will help move the department away from problems of the past and toward solutions of the future by implementing the legislation we have passed to address significant problems confronting the VA. I am confident that he is the right leader because he has the expertise, the judgement and the character to take on the challenges that lie ahead and will bring stability and leadership to the VA.
I look forward to continuing our efforts by working with my colleagues in Congress, President Trump and Secretary Wilkie to meet these challenges head on and transform the VA into a department worthy of our veterans.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. He served in the Georgia Air National Guard (1966-72) and has been a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee since he joined the Senate in 2005.