Tester Opening Statement on ‘State of the VA’ Hearing

Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Jon Tester today questioned VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, in his first appearance before the Committee as Secretary, about his first 60 days in office.

The following is Tester’s opening statement, as prepared for delivery:

Secretary Wilkie, thank you for being here. Welcome.

In your written testimony, you shared five real-life stories of individuals at VA who are making a difference.

We don’t hear enough about the good things the Agency does day-in and day-out so thank you.

There is a reason why an overwhelming number of veterans prefer their care from the VA. 

And there is a reason why thousands of men and women across the country work tirelessly every single day to provide veterans with the care, benefits or services they’ve earned.

I’m talking about the physician assistant in Montana, the claims processor in Georgia, the cemetery caretaker in North Carolina and countless others.

The VA means a great deal to these folks. And it means a great deal to this country.

So today, I’m hopeful we can talk about what’s right at VA, while also trying to address what can be improved.

Mr. Chairman, in terms of the number and scope of bills we’ve had signed into law, this Committee has had a historic Congress.

But there is much to be done – we need to pass the Blue Water Navy Veterans Act and we need to move on a number of critical bills that have been introduced by Members of both sides of this committee. 

Just as important, we need to ensure that the reforms of the previous two years are implemented appropriately by VA, as Congress intended and as veterans deserve.

Mr. Secretary, as you highlighted in your testimony – “This is not business as usual. This is fundamental transformation, not seen at VA since just after World War II.”

Because the stakes are so high, collaboration and partnerships are more critical than ever – whether it’s the VA and VSOs, Congress and VSOs or Congress and VA.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, it looks as if VA is headed in the opposite direction – disengaging with veteran stakeholders when it should be engaging more than ever, and becoming less transparent when it should be more transparent.

I hope I’m wrong.  But let me tell you why I believe that. 

When the negotiation process for the MISSION Act started nearly two years ago, this Committee worked in good faith with VA to develop legislation that made the most sense for veterans, community providers and taxpayers.

I cannot overstate the amount of collaboration that went on between Congress and VA to get that bill across the finish line.

Now, three months have passed since that bill became law.  And the most we have received is a 40,000 foot view of the offices responsible for implementing the Program.

Nothing of substance.

It took a letter signed by the leadership of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees – after a planned briefing was unilaterally canceled by VA – to start getting some answers.

That’s a problem.  It’s not the way we’ve done business in the past, and it shouldn’t be the way we do business in the future.

With that in mind, Mr. Secretary, there were a couple lines toward the conclusion of your written statement that gave me serious pause.

You state that VA cannot “stop everything [it is] doing to provide updates or respond to inquiries if we are serious about getting to our destination.”

Providing updates or responding to inquiries about implementation of the laws we fought hard to pass may not always be convenient or pleasant – but that’s how this works.

As a longtime Congressional staffer, you’ve been on this side of the dais.  You know that’s the only way we can get the information we need to do our jobs. 

And that job is to provide oversight of the 2nd largest agency in the federal government – an agency that will spend more than $200 billion next year – during what we have both agreed are transformational times.

I strongly supported your nomination.  I continue to believe that you are the right person for the job. 

Our nation’s veterans are counting on you. I sincerely want VA to succeed.  And I want you to succeed. 

After your confirmation, you deserved some space to get your bearings, to get your team in place and to bring some stability to the Agency.

But it’s been 60 days.  And I think we can all acknowledge that the honeymoon is over. 

Moving forward, I am hopeful that VA can be more transparent, engage more constructively with stakeholders and work more collaboratively on critical issues for veterans.

For me, medical workforce vacancies are at the top of the list.

I know that shortage of medical personnel is a national problem, and not just a VA problem.

But I also know that the Secretary before you - and the one before him, and the ones before him - all sat in that chair and asked this Committee for new authorities and additional resources to better recruit and retain the folks needed by VA to serve veterans.     

This Committee delivered nearly every single time – including the additional funding in next year’s appropriations bill and the slew of newest authorities in the VA MISSION Act. 

Mr. Secretary, today you will be receiving a letter from me that requests more information about how VA is using these additional authorities. 

It’s not an exercise to create additional paperwork for you. It’s so this Committee can have a better idea of what is working and what is not and can better focus our efforts.

Since vacancies continue to be the biggest barrier to primary, specialty and mental care for veterans across the country, I think that’s a very reasonable request.  And I hope we can work very closely on this issue moving forward. 

We have a lot of ground to cover, and I look forward to getting started. 

Mr. Secretary, thank you again for being here.  I appreciate your work and your leadership.

Mr. Chairman, without objection, I’d like to include a written statement from the Partnership for Public Service in the record today.  

Their statement underscores the need for VA to maintain a collaborative relationship with Congress and this committee, and highlights the importance of employee engagement within VA.