Isakson Challenges VA Deputy Secretary Nominee to Lead VA to Success

Emphasizes need for successful implementation of VA MISSION Act, mental health priorities

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, today gave a clear directive to President Donald J. Trump’s nominee to serve in the number two spot at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): Join ranks with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and lead the VA to success.

“I appreciate your prioritization of serving with Secretary Wilkie,” said Isakson. “He’s a demanding task maker, but he won’t ask of you any more than he asks of himself. And that’s the kind of leadership we want and the kind of leadership we’ve needed at the VA.”

During a hearing to consider the qualifications of James Byrne to be deputy secretary of the VA, Isakson emphasized the number one priority of the deputy secretary will be to ensure the successful implementation of the VA MISSION Act. The VA MISSION Act, landmark legislation authored by Isakson and signed into law in 2018, transforms the way the VA delivers health care to ensure veterans receive efficient, timely and quality care.

“Mission one for us is the VA MISSION Act, and getting it implemented, and making it work,” said Isakson. “And we’re going to have some things fall through the cracks. You can’t have that many people and that many moving parts and not have problems, but at least we can get on top of them, solve them and make them better.”

Byrne explained he has already been deeply involved in and supportive of the VA MISSION Act rollout while serving as acting VA deputy secretary over the last 10 months. He reiterated the VA’s commitment to a successful implementation on June 6, 2019.

Isakson went on to emphasize the deputy secretary will also be responsible for leveraging VA and community resources to make sure veterans are getting the mental health services they need. Recently, two veterans died by suicide at VA facilities in Isakson’s home state of Georgia, further highlighting the urgent need to address veteran suicide prevention.

“I particularly appreciate that you’ve embraced the suicide prevention goals that all of us have on the VA committee and at the VA, and that is to begin to go through the process of slowing down the rate of suicide, and eventually if possible, preventing it,” said Isakson. “We’ve got to continually review our processes and the timeliness of getting a veteran in danger to a professional to help and counsel with them.”

“I’m going to be talking a lot more about that in the months ahead as chairman,” Isakson continued. “Absolutely something that needs to be done quickly, and absolutely needs to be something that we never give up on trying to find the right answers to the questions that are asked of us.”

Byrne affirmed that mental health is the number one clinical priority at the VA and that the $222 million dollars allocated to the VA for mental health and suicide prevention outreach efforts has facilitated the launch of several new programs aimed at reducing the number of veteran suicides.

Isakson concluded today’s hearing by reminding Byrne that the VA is at a critical juncture as it continues implementing several major legislative reforms that will transform the way the VA operates and delivers care and services to veterans.

Byrne has been VA general counsel since August 2017, and added the duties of acting deputy secretary in August 2018. You can read more about Byrne’s qualifications here.

Watch Isakson’s opening remarks here and his questions for Byrne here.

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The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 116th 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 Committee on Veterans’ Affairs 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 armed services as well as nearly 700,000 veterans.