(U.S. Senate) – Bipartisan legislation introduced by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.), U.S. Senators John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to strengthen oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for veterans and taxpayers yesterday unanimously passed the U.S. Senate. The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.
The Senators’ Strengthening Oversight for Veterans Act of 2021 would provide the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) the authority to subpoena testimony from former VA employees who have left federal service, former contractor personnel who performed work for the Department, or other potentially relevant individuals during the course of its inspections, reviews, and investigations.
“We’ve got to see to it that the VA Office of Inspector General has the tools to provide additional oversight over the Department on behalf of veterans and taxpayers,” said Chairman Tester. “The Senate’s unanimous passage of our bipartisan bill means we’re one step closer to providing this important watchdog with greater ability to detect fraud, abuse and waste at all levels, and I encourage my House colleagues to pass it without delay.”
“Expanding the VA OIG’s authority so it can conduct more thorough investigations will improve transparency and accountability, ensuring our veterans get the care and services they have earned,” said Senator Boozman. “Passage of this bipartisan legislation delivers on our commitment to make sure we fulfill the promises made to veterans. I urge the House of Representatives to follow the Senate’s lead and deliver this much-needed reform to the president’s desk.”
“Our Veterans have made great sacrifices to protect our nation,” said Senator Manchin. “Now, it is our duty to take care of them and that starts with ensuring accountability at the VA. West Virginia Veterans have experienced the horrific impacts of top-down VA leadership failures, resulting in the tragic deaths of seven Veterans at the Clarksburg VA Medical Center. The OIG currently does not have testimonial subpoena powers, which resulted in the OIG having limited authority during the Clarksburg VAMC investigation. Our bipartisan legislation addresses this oversight by granting the OIG the authority to conduct thorough investigations. I’m pleased our bill has unanimously passed the Senate and I look forward to President Biden signing this important legislation into law.”
Under current law, VA OIG does not have testimonial subpoena authority to compel individuals relevant to investigations to answer questions in person and under oath. This can limit both VA OIG and Congress’ ability to conduct complete and thorough reviews, including of VA health care and benefits programs, management actions, and contracts. The Senators’ bill would expand VA OIG’s authority to provide stronger oversight over the Department.
The Senators’ efforts to improve oversight for veterans and taxpayers has strong backing from leading advocates:
“The VFW believes the OIG performs a critical role in overseeing and investigating the practices of VA, and a vital component of this role is currently lacking,” said Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) National Legislative Director Pat Murray. “The Strengthening Oversight for Veterans Act of 2021 would provide the OIG a missing tool in its toolbox to properly ensure that office can oversee the department more effectively.”
“Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) believes that the VA Inspector General plays a critical role by increasing accountability and helps VA deliver the best care for our nation’s veterans,” said IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler. “The Strengthening Oversight for Veterans Act will provide additional capabilities that will significantly improve their ability to provide the necessary oversight and IAVA is proud to support this legislation.”
“The Project On Government Oversight is proud to support the Strengthening Oversight for Veterans Act of 2021,” said the Project On Government Oversight’s Director of Public Policy Liz Hempowicz. “This bill will dramatically improve oversight at the VA by eliminating a longstanding loophole that allows VA employees to escape independent oversight by simply resigning from their post. This is not a reform in search of a problem—but a well thought through solution to an obvious problem. I applaud Senators Tester, Boozman, and Manchin for this important effort to better serve our veterans and taxpayers.”
Last year, VA OIG issued a damning report tied to the horrific events at the VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia where a former VA nursing assistant was convicted of seven counts of murder and one count of assault with the intent to commit murder of veterans receiving care there. The report noted a lack of testimonial subpoena authority limited its ability to conduct a more thorough review of the incident. VA OIG has also identified at least five other investigations since 2017 where this authority would have assisted the independent watchdog in investigating patient safety, procurement, and ethical conflicts of interest.