Isakson to VA Secretary: Time for Results

Presses VA secretary on better accountability, better results for veterans with implementation of significant reforms; Applauds VA’s recommended support for Blue Water Navy court decision

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, today questioned U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie on the VA’s ongoing implementation of a number of important legislative reforms during a hearing on the president’s fiscal year 2020 budget request.

The VA is currently implementing several major reforms enacted last Congress to overhaul the VA’s community care programs, modernize the disability claims appeals process, establish the “Forever G.I. Bill” and improve accountability at the VA.

“We got some laws passed last Congress that [the VA] has wanted for a long time and said it needed for some time,” said Isakson during opening remarks. “We’ll look for those results this year, and that’s what we’re going to be reviewing [today], making sure progress comes with results, not just promises.”

“Let’s talk about making the VA the best we can make it and what our veterans want it to be,” continued Isakson. “Veterans like their VA, but we just want to make it a little bit better. Better in its accountability and better in its results, and that’s what we’ll be talking about today.”

Isakson also received confirmation from Wilkie that the VA will recommend that the U.S. Department of Justice does not contest a recent federal court decision to award disability benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam and have certain medical conditions associated with the chemical herbicide Agent Orange commonly used in Vietnam..

“Is it true, Secretary Wilkie, that Blue Water Navy’s court decision is not being challenged?” Isakson asked.

“That would be my recommendation from VA,” Wilkie confirmed.

The president’s fiscal year 2020 VA budget request provides $220.2 billion in funding for the VA’s health, benefits, construction and other administrative programs. Isakson reiterated Congress’ continued support for providing funding to care for our veterans and asked Wilkie to show results for the record levels of funding that have been requested.

“When you refer to improvements at the VA, how do you measure your outcomes?” said Isakson, requesting information from Wilkie on how the VA determines whether its new programs are successful in providing veterans with better services and care.

Wilkie said their number one evaluation tool is talking directly to veterans in the VA system to see if they’re satisfied with the care they’ve been provided. He noted that the customer satisfaction rate has been consistently moving in an upward direction.  

The budget request also includes $1.6 billion in funding for the ongoing integration of health records between the VA and the U.S. Department of Defense. The new electronic health record system will enable the sharing of patient data and help improve the coordination and delivery of care to veterans. The VA cited upcoming implementation milestones as the reason for the increase, and Isakson pressed Wilkie on how the additional funding will guarantee a successful completion of the new informational technology (IT) system.

“Your budget proposal includes funding for retiring two IT systems that currently exist within the VA,” said Isakson. “I would like for you to talk about the retiring of those programs and the overall picture in terms of the new VA IT system and making it better.”

Wilkie affirmed that the funding for the integration of the VA’s IT system would improve the veteran customer service experience and bring the VA in line with the rest of the country. The VA currently has 8,000 employees that are dedicated solely to that transition. Isakson encouraged Wilkie to ensure the right people are in place to oversee such a large IT overhaul.

“I encourage you to make sure we have the right people who know what they’re talking about and making the decisions and the recommendations to you for the final decision that understand the technology and acknowledge what they can or cannot do,” Isakson said.

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