Tester quizzes Secretary Wilkie during “state of the VA” Senate hearing

by Missoula Current, Martin Kidston

The state of the Department of Veterans Affairs is “better” than it was a few short years ago, though work remains, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told members of the Senate on Wednesday.

Sen. Jon Tester, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs, agreed with Wilke’s prognosis, but not without raising concern over perceived trends and lingering challenges.

“We need to ensure the reforms of the past two years are implemented, just as Congress intended and as the veterans deserve,” Tester told Wilkie. “This is not business as usual. This is a fundamental transformation not seen in the VA since WWII.”

In his update, Wilkie identified four key areas of VA focus intended to meet congressional mandates, including customer service and full implementation of key legislation, such as the Mission Act.

He also looks to modernize the agency’s record system.

“It will finally create a continuum of care organized around a veteran’s needs,” Wilkie said. “What I see in the future is that we’ll never have a veteran, as my father was, carrying around an 800-page paper record.”

Tester praised the VA on its progress and members of his committee, chaired by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, for funding the agency at record levels and passing key reforms.

But Tester also said the stakes were high and that collaboration and partnerships were more critical than ever as the agency evolves. He said he’s concerned the VA may be moving in the opposite direction.

“Unfortunately, in my opinion, it looks as though the VA is heading in the opposite direction, disengaging with veteran stakeholder groups when it should be more engaged than ever with this transformation, and becoming less transparent when it needs to be more transparent,” Tester said. “I hope that I’m wrong.”

Tester also expressed concern over language in Wilkie’s letter to the committee, which suggested the VA was unable to stop routine functions to provide updates to the committee. While it may not be convenient to do so, Tester said, those updates remain relevant to the process.

“Providing updates and responding to inquiries about implementation of the law that we fought hard as hell to pass may not always be convenient, and it may not always be pleasant, but it’s really how the democracy works,” Tester said. “I strongly believe in your nomination, and I continue to believe you’re the right person for the job. I really want you to succeed.”

Tester urged Wilkie to address lingering workforce shortages within the VA, saying the issue tops his list of concerns. Though the shortage of medical personnel remains a national problem, not just at the VA, Tester said, Congress has given the agency the funding and leeway to fix the issue.

“The secretary before you, and the one before him and the one before him, all sat in that chair and asked this committee for new authorities and additional resources to better recruit and retain folks needed by the VA to serve our veterans,” Tester said. “Congress delivered every single time.”

Wilkie told Tester it remains a priority, saying for the first time in 40 years half the nation’s veterans are under the age of 65 and 10 percent of them are now women. Today’s veterans, he said, demand 21st century service.

“It’s clear to me that the veteran population and their needs are changing faster than we even realized,” Wilkie said. “I’ve also seen the wonderful examples of VA accomplishment that Sen. Tester has pointed out, and they deserve more attention than they receive. The VA health-care system continues to outperform the private sector in quality care and patient safety for our veterans.”

Isakson, the committee chairman, said the VA has made progress in recent years. Not long ago, he said, the VA was falling short on “everything known to man,” though his committee and the VA have begun to correct course.

“I’ve gotten letters from my district, unsolicited, from veterans who used to write me about why we weren’t doing anything because we couldn’t get anything done, to thanking me for the efficient way the operation works right now,” Isakson said. “We’re not perfect, and I don’t want (Wilkie) to rest on his laurels thinking the hard part is over, because the hard part is just starting.”