WASHINGTON – With support from key veterans organizations and government accountability groups, U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, urged his Senate colleagues to support the Veterans First Act, a bipartisan bill to change the culture at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) through accountability reform as well as enhanced veterans’ health care and benefits.
“Every time we turn around, there are reports of no accountability at the VA,” said Isakson in remarks delivered on the Senate floor. “Our committee decided it is our job to see to it that our veterans get what they deserve. That is, a VA that delivers on the promise of good health care, good benefits and the appreciation of a grateful country for the sacrifice each of them made.”
Isakson continued, “The important thing to understand is that we are finally putting our veterans first. We are telling the VA: ‘We appreciate the good job you do, but we want to make sure you are doing it 100 percent of the time, not just 85 or 90 or 95 percent of the time.’ We want to make sure they are putting our veterans first. We want to make sure that somebody who makes a mental health call to a veterans hospital doesn’t get a busy signal or a wrong number. We want to make sure that when somebody makes an appointment and then shows up, there is somebody there to meet them for that appointment. We want to make sure that the services veterans earned, fought for, and in many cases sacrificed for, are available to them.”
Highlights of the Veterans First Act include accountability reform to make it easier for the VA secretary to remove bad actors at all levels of the department, the expansion of the VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, the strengthening of the Veterans Choice Program and the establishment of a pilot program to address the delays and massive backlog in VA’s disability claims appeals process.
The Veterans First Act has won the support of several veterans groups that represent millions of veterans in the United States. The legislation also has won the support of key government accountability groups.
Here are statements from those groups:
The American Legion
“There is much to like in this bill. Since the wait time manipulations and other irregularities were exposed in 2014, The American Legion has demanded accountability. This legislation will shorten the grievance process, make it easier to dismiss VA officials that breach the trust of the veterans that they are supposed to serve and allow VA to offer competitive pay and incentives to attract talented physicians and other professionals. We hope that Congress will pass and the president will sign this bill quickly.” -- National Commander of The American Legion Dale Barnett
Paralyzed Veterans of America
“The Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs to veterans of all generations is one of our highest legislative priorities. …The bill reflects several other high priorities for the organization, including a strong focus on accountability within the ranks of the VA, and maintaining current protections for veterans in the claims and appeals process.” -- Sherman Gillums, Paralyzed Veterans’ acting executive director
Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)
“The VFW is encouraged that the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has made progress on the Veterans First Act, and while there are key omissions, we do call upon the full Senate to quickly pass it so that the House and Senate can compromise on a final bill. …The VFW looks forward to working with the committees to pass this much-needed bill, as well as finding a way forward to implement appeals reform that improves the process and reduces the current backlog of pending appeals.”
Disabled American Veterans (DAV)
“We applaud Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (GA) and Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal (CT) for reaching bipartisan agreement on a Senate omnibus veterans bill, the ‘Veterans First Act,’ that contains many DAV priorities to strengthen and expand federal programs benefits supporting the men and women who served. This omnibus legislation would extend comprehensive caregiver support to veterans of all eras, increase veterans’ options for long term care through medical foster homes, enhance VA’s efforts to recruit, retain the best and brightest medical professionals, reform claims and appeals processing by creating a fully developed appeals program and make dozens of other positive changes to improve the lives of those who wore the uniform.” – Garry J. Augustine, Washington Executive Director, DAV
National Association of State Approving Agencies (NASAA)
“NASAA supports the Veterans First Act because we strongly believe that its provisions provide important safeguards, which will serve to protect our veterans, while helping to reduce obstacles to veterans success in education and training that will lead to meaningful employment.”
Government Accountability Project
“The Government Accountability Project supports today’s introduction of key whistleblower protections for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employees within the Veterans First Act. Introduced by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson and Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal, the rights are a major breakthrough in the struggle for VA whistleblowers to gain credible protections when defending the integrity of the agency mission and disclosing quality of care concerns. Further, the Act would provide a system to hold employees accountable for their actions when they retaliate against those exposing waste, fraud, or abuse.”
Office of Special Counsel (OSC)
"The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has received thousands of whistleblower retaliation complaints and disclosures from Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees. Based on this experience, we support the Committee’s decision, in the Veterans First Act, to establish the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP). We believe the OAWP will reinforce steps the VA has taken to elevate and address these critical issues. We look forward to working closely with OAWP as we continue our efforts to protect veterans and whistleblowers." - Carolyn Lerner, Special Counsel
Below are some of the news articles about the Veterans First Act:
“Accountability and reform omnibus… a giant step forward” – Federal News Radio
Veterans First Act “among the most ambitious of Isakson’s career on Capitol Hill” – Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Large veterans reform bill promises ‘a new VA’” – Military Times
“VA reform bill would make it easier to fire employees” – Federal Times
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.