Isakson: VA’s IT, Accountability Positions are of Tremendous Responsibility, Importance

Committee considers two nominees for VA’s offices of information and technology, accountability and whistleblower protection

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on Wednesday held a hearing to consider the nominations of James Gfrerer to be chief information officer (CIO) and assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Information and Technology (IT) and Tamara Bonzanto to be assistant secretary of the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

In his opening remarks, Isakson called the two positions being considered “of tremendous responsibility and importance” and emphasized the need for a responsive, accountable and responsible VA.

“We want to be able to help you do anything you need to do to succeed, but you’ve got to talk to us,” said Isakson to the two nominees. “You’ve got to work with us. You’ve got to do your job. You’ve got to empower the Department of Veterans Affairs employees to do their job for our veterans.”

Isakson pointed to VA’s recent failure to meet a critical Aug. 1 implementation deadline for the so-called “Forever G.I. Bill” law that was passed in 2017 because of a delay in standing up its IT system to accommodate the updated G.I. Bill payments as an example of the VA missing the mark when it comes to being responsible for its undertakings.

“When I heard about [the missed deadline] I said, ‘How could we do that?’ Well it turned out we did it because we weren’t watching our responsibility,” said Isakson. “The change that should’ve been made in the technology center wasn’t made. Checks and balances we have built into the system weren’t followed.”

The VA’s chief information officer oversees a number of critical projects at the VA, including the massive electronic health records merger, a new system to support the expanded VA caregivers benefits, processing of G.I. Bill payments and many other IT priorities.

Isakson pointed out to the CIO nominee that, if confirmed “it’s your responsibility” to oversee the implementation of the VA’s many IT systems and priorities. “We’re going to take great pride in finding out where we’re weak and making ourselves strong. We’re going to take great pride in making our agency an agency that’s responsive and responsible to our veterans. We’re going to keep our promises.”

Isakson said the VA should handle problems going forward in a way that will “identify the problem; locate the person responsible; hold them accountable. And this is where our second nominee today comes into play because she’s responsible for the whistleblower and accountability office that we created in law we passed in 2017.”

The Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection was established in 2017 in legislation that Isakson authored, the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. The law requires the office be headed up by a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary to ensure full accountability by Congress and the American people, a role that Bonzanto has been nominated to fill.

“Our committee is working to ensure the new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection meets its responsibility to manage senior executive discipline and protect the rights of whistleblowers,” said Isakson. “Having this leadership position filled is critical to furthering that effort.”

Isakson noted that the committee has provided the VA unprecedented tools to hold bad actors accountable. 

“I believe these tools should be used to swiftly remove employees that are not working to enhance the lives of our veterans,” said Isakson. “We owe our veterans the best possible care and support that they have earned. By helping to instill a culture of accountability at the VA, we can see to it that we deliver on that promise.”

In closing, Isakson said, “I have been looking forward to today’s hearing for quite some time because I think we’re finding the right kind of people now to tackle the jobs and correct the problems I know we have [at the VA]. We’re looking forward to you both being something we can brag about.”

Isakson announced at Wednesday’s hearing that a committee vote on the nominations of Gfrerer and Bonzanto will be held soon.

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The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 115th 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 more than 750,000 veterans.