Tester Holds Oversight Hearing on Proposed 2019 VA Budget

Senator Releases Summary of President’s Budget Impact on Veterans

(U.S. Senate) – U.S. Senator Jon Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, today oversaw a Committee hearing to discuss the Department of Veterans’ Affairs proposed budget for 2019.

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

“Dr. Shulkin, thank you and your team for being here.

Over the last few years, during your time as both Under Secretary and Secretary, this committee has heard from you about what VA needs to be successful in its mission.

We have listened. And we have acted.

This year alone, we have passed eight bipartisan bills that have been signed into law, to give you authorities and funding to do what you need to do, and we’re working on more.

That’s our job – to provide you with the resources and tools you need, and it’s a critical part of taking care of American veterans.

Equally critical, though, is your job – how those new authorities are implemented, executed, and utilized – not just here in DC, but in every corner of the country, at VA facilities nationwide. And that’s where my concerns lie.

Even with the additional money we’ve pushed into the program and the legislative fixes you said you needed to cut red tape, the Choice program continues to be a mess.

Contractors are being paid but community providers are not. Veterans can’t get quick appointments in their community. And every facility operates the program differently.

You said you needed new authorities to hold bad actors accountable – both rank and file and managers – for truly heinous offenses.

But we know VISN directors are saying there will be no more progressive discipline, and that front-line, low-level employees are being fired for minor infractions and first offenses.

You now have the hiring authorities and resources you say you need, but Montana has four CBOCs that do not have a single in-person, on the ground primary care provider.

It’s clear that communication between central office and the field is terrible. That’s a longstanding issue that we’ve previously discussed.

And I’m not the only one here who gets three different answers from your office, from the VISN, and from the facility.

It’s hard for us to have any clear, true understanding of what on earth is going on. And so we have to trust this administration to implement the authorities we give you.

Not to mention – poor communication channels are simply not fair to your employees across the country, who deserve clear and consistent guidance, expectations, and support.

They deserve stable leadership – especially when they’re going to work every day while their agency is beaten up in the press or by politicians looking for headlines and not solutions.

But we’re here to talk about the administration’s budget proposal. And I’m concerned.

I’m not supportive of merging your healthcare budget lines.

If we don’t have the visibility into how much money is going where, I don’t know that we’ll ever get a true answer about how much money is being spent on in-house care versus private care.

And despite your assurances, I don’t want this to end up being a backdoor to privatization by those with political agendas.

I also question how VA can cut caregiver benefits when they are so critical and actually cost less than to the taxpayer than long-term care. Or how the budget can reference a $30 billion cut to veterans disability benefits without much explanation.

So, I look forward to hearing more about the budget – the resources and tools you need from us, and your justification for those requests.

But I want to be clear that all the resources and tools mean nothing if they are not executed well.

VA needs to do better – much better – in properly executing the new tools and authorities we provide. And as Secretary, I will hold you accountable for that.

Thanks again for being here. And thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

Tester released a summary of the impact that the President’s proposed budget would have on veterans. That summary can be found online HERE.

More information about today’s Committee hearing on the Fiscal Year 2019 Budget can be found online HERE.