(U.S. Senate) – Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Jon Tester today screened Robert Wilkie, nominee to be VA Secretary.
The following is Tester’s opening statement, as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Robert, it’s good to see you again.
I appreciated your willingness to serve as Acting Secretary. And I appreciate your willingness to step forward now, during what I believe are unprecedented times at VA.
If confirmed, you will be tasked with ensuring that our nation’s veterans have access to the timely care, services and benefits they have earned.
You will also be expected to treat every veteran – regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation - with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Today, we are here to determine whether you are the right person for this job.
Every new Administration brings its own priorities and its own people to the table.
That transition period can often lead to turmoil and confusion, and can generate uncertainty inside and outside an agency.
But from my perspective, VA has always been above the fray.
The sacred mission of serving veterans and their families has always transcended personal agendas or political affiliations.
I worked with Jim Nicholson as closely as I worked with Eric Shinseki. And I worked with Jim Peake as closely as I worked with Bob McDonald.
Each of them were focused on how best to serve veterans, and they didn’t allow politics to get in the way of progress.
But recently, we have seen VA political appointees work actively and publicly to undermine a Secretary and Deputy Secretary who were unanimously-confirmed by the Senate.
As we speak, the Secretary and Deputy Secretary positions are vacant, while those same political appointees continue to collect paychecks from VA.
We are seeing non-partisan senior leaders and subject-matter experts leave the VA in droves – many are concerned that sound policies and ideas are being increasingly marginalized at the expense of political interests.
We are seeing VA implement reform after reform in a manner that is inconsistent with Congressional intent.
We are seeing political interest groups given a seat at the table instead of veterans service organizations.
We are seeing VA leadership – none of whom have been confirmed - lash out at anyone seeking true transparency.
In just the past couple weeks, the VA’s official media account has attacked news outlets as “fake news”.
And the Acting Secretary has improperly claimed that the independent Inspector General is his subordinate.
I hope you agree that that type of behavior undermines the VA’s mission. And it does a disservice to the millions of veterans who rely upon the VA.
And I hope everyone at VA was watching last week when the Senate voted 96-0 to reaffirm the independence of the VA IG.
Federal agencies can’t be trusted to police themselves. Veterans and taxpayers need to know that VA is not above the law.
Robert, I need to know that you are the guy who understands VA has larger challenges ahead. And it simply cannot afford to get weighed down by unforced errors.
Veterans are counting on VA to implement the MISSION Act within the next year. And it needs to be done with more transparency than the Accountability Act.
Congress has provided the VA ample time to roll out the MISSION Act and to get it done right.
If it doesn’t happen, the buck stops with you. Congress and veterans will hold you accountable. I hope you understand that.
I’m already concerned that the Department isn’t as ready as it should be for this monumental undertaking.
For example, VA is supposed to be contracting for community care networks that will help facilitate a veteran’s access to community care. Those dates have been pushed back multiple times now.
I am concerned. And you should be, too.
We will also be counting on you to ensure that care INSIDE the VA is accessible and of the highest quality.
Congress has provided VA with tool after tool to better carry out its mission. But far too often, VA has failed to properly utilize those tools to deliver better outcomes for veterans.
That needs to change. And I will be looking to you – as the person ultimately responsible – to make this happen.
Robert, I have appreciated our working relationship. As I told you recently, I believe you are a straight-shooter.
And I think that, when confronted with a decision about what is best for veterans, you will act with the best of intentions.
The question is how that decision will ultimately be impacted by the influence of others – whether we’re talking about political appointees at VA or folks over in the White House.
Sooner or later, you’ll come to a crossroads with these folks. That is what happened to David Shulkin. That is what happened to Tom Bowman. And that is what happened to countless other folks who have left the Department.
My only advice to you is to take your cues from veterans and do what YOU think is right, even if political forces threaten your job.
Because I want you to succeed, I really do. And veterans across this country need you to succeed.
This post requires courage, honesty, integrity and a vision for the future. Leading the nation’s largest health care system, demands the very best.
I look forward to our discussion today, and thank you again for your willingness to serve on behalf of our nation’s veterans.