Tester Opening Statement on VA Budget Presentation

(U.S. Senate) – Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Jon Tester today heard VA Secretary Robert Wilkie deliver the VA’s budget priorities for Fiscal Year 2020.

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

Secretary Wilkie, thank you and your team for being here. 

Over the last few years, this committee has heard from VA about what it needs to be successful in its mission.

We’ve also engaged with Veterans Service Organizations about what they want and need from VA. 

This Committee has listened.  And we have acted - leading the way on a number of monumental reforms on behalf of our nation’s veterans.

That’s an important part of our job – providing VA with the resources and tools you need. 

Equally critical, though, is your job – deciding how new authorities and resources are executed and utilized.  And that is where my concerns lie. 

In my view, the level of commitment from Congress to address health care vacancies and critical infrastructure needs at VA has not been matched by the Department.

I have CBOCs in Montana with no doctors, no advanced clinicians, and where care is only provided through telehealth.

The CBOC in Havre, Montana has one clinical staff member, a part-time Advance Practice Nurse who lives in Great Falls, over 100 miles away and sees veterans via telehealth.

Telehealth is a great innovation, but it can’t replace all types of health care.

So you get my frustration – that VA’s primary focus seems to be expanding eligibility and investments into community care, often at the expense of capacity-building initiatives.

As you and I have discussed, there is certainly a role for private sector care, particularly in places like Montana.

But I think you’re taking the Department down a dangerous and very expensive path.  When it comes to veterans, you can outsource the care but you can’t outsource the responsibility.  

And when you send them into the community for care without first knowing if that care can be provided in a timely manner, you are outsourcing your responsibility.   

When you hold VA providers to one set of standards and community providers to lesser standards, you are outsourcing your responsibility.

After all, none of us want a flood of veterans going into the community for care that is less timely and lower quality.

And we certainly can’t head down that path without a firm grasp for how much it will cost American taxpayers.  

For example, we received multiple estimates from the Department on how much it would cost to implement access standards in the months leading up to this budget request.

None of those estimates match the number that finally appeared in the budget request.

So it’s not clear how you came up with that estimate.

It’s also not clear whether the technology you need to implement this program, such as the Decision Support Tool, will be ready and on time for implementation.

I have been receiving conflicting reports about the readiness of this tool. And frankly, I’m frustrated we continue hearing about IT solutions that may not be executed properly.

As you know, the VA has struggled for many years in the field of IT, earning it a place on the GAO’s High Risk List again this year.

I recently had a great meeting with Jim Gfrerer (JA-FRAIR) but the lack of OIT representation from the Department today raises questions about how you are prioritizing these issues.

I would note that the modest increase in IT funding in your request barely exceeds FY2017 funding levels.

We have seen how flawed IT rollouts impact veterans, and the progress VA is making on replacing antiquated systems can’t afford to be plagued with shortcuts. 

So, I look forward to hearing more details about this Budget Request, and I look forward to our conversation. 

Thank you all again for being here.