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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Isakson Urges Senate to Pass 'Caring for Our Veterans Act'

'The veteran comes first in the Caring for Our Veterans Act... Do the right thing and vote for veterans'

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, today spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate to highlight the Senate’s significant bipartisan victories this year on behalf of our nation’s veterans and to urge his colleagues to support the Caring for Our Veterans Act of 2017, which is currently awaiting a full Senate vote.

The Senate’s efforts this year include the passage of 10 major pieces of veterans legislation – all of which have been signed into law – that aim to strengthen veterans’ health care, benefits and support. Isakson expressed his hope to add the Caring for Our Veterans Act to the list before the end of the year to make critical reforms to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) community care programs.

The Caring for Our Veterans Act is bipartisan legislation that would streamline and strengthen veterans’ community care services at the VA. It was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate VA committee on Nov. 29, 2017, and is supported by 26 leading veterans and military advocacy groups.

Isakson’s full remarks as delivered are included below:

“Mr. President, I’m glad to join my colleague, Senator Tester from Montana, on the floor today for a discussion of our Veterans’ Affairs [Committee] accomplishments over the last three years and our challenges for the future

“But I want to start out my part of this conversation by saying this: Three years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs made big headlines. Those headlines were that it wasn’t working well, our veterans were waiting too long for care, there were failures in our system throughout, and people were looking for an alternative to the VA system because it was in such a quagmire.

“Thanks to the work of our committee we sought out to fix a lot of problems. Number one was the hospital in Denver which was 40 percent finished, three years behind pace and was going to be closed down. That hospital is open today and operating because the Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the Senate buckled its shoes, got to work, got the VA fixed and got the hospital finished.

“But the most challenging thing we faced were long wait times for appointments for our veterans and veterans’ services for health care. Longer than 30 days for just a routine appointment, sometimes being as long as six months to wait, sometimes dying before they got called up from the waiting list as happened in the Arizona case in Phoenix.

“We had some tragic stories that came through and our committee came together and said ‘We are going to fix this. We are going to put our shoulder to the grindstone, we’re going to work hard and we’re going to make it happen.’

“And like always, fixing anything requires one element, and that’s hard work. And the committee has worked hard, Democrats and Republicans alike, and been willing to get with the new secretary, Secretary Shulkin and all of his aides, like Tom Bowman, who was an aide to our committee for a long time and now the deputy secretary [of the VA], and say ‘What is it we need to do to get it fixed?’

“We started out this year with 11 bills introduced for VA improvements in terms of health care, and 10 of those 11 have passed the Senate and there is one left. We are going to have a perfect 11 for 11 before the end of this year if we get the Caring for Our Veterans Act passed.

“But even if that doesn’t make it, we’ve dealt with long waiting lines for the determination of benefits at the VA, and those waiting lines are beginning to dissipate. We don’t have hospitals being shut down because they can’t be finished. We have hospitals opening because they can be finished. We don’t have near as many cases of horror stories at the VA health facilities because they are being run better.

“Sure we have problems. Any time you have the second largest agency in the federal government, which the VA health system is, you’re going to have problems. But we are meeting them head on, not running away from them. We have a secretary who is really willing to work and make it happen.

“I cannot say enough about Secretary Shulkin. He has been fantastic. He has been a great worker and has given President Trump the message in terms of what our veterans’ need, the challenges that we face and need the White House to join us, and the White House has substantially done so to help make a lot of improvements.

“Working with the ranking member, we decided we would do a number of things. We would end the long wait times for determination of disability and we’ve done that. We wanted to see to it that the modern access to health care was available to all of our veterans. We wanted to make sure that we came up with creative ideas by using telemedicine and other techniques to deliver health care to our veterans.

“But most importantly we knew that the Choice Act that we passed three years ago, led by Senator McCain, who by the way is in our prayers and thoughts every day and we wish him the very best, Senator McCain went to work and came up with the first aspect of Choice which passed three years ago. We had this crazy idea that we were going to let veterans choose where they wanted to go for their health care, and we set up a system to do that.

“The system worked pretty well in some cases. Senator Tester will tell you that in rural America it didn’t work all that good in some cases. But it was a good effort of ours to take the private sector in America and make it a force multiplier for the healthcare services delivered to our veterans, and expand the access to health care to our veterans.

“Well now we have before the Senate what we call the Caring for Our Veterans Act, and it is the finishing touches of what was originally the Choice Act. We are taking the things that we learned were wrong and repealing them. We are taking the things we learned were right and enhancing them.

“I hope every member in the Senate will hear my voice today and will join me in the next few days ahead to finish the job and pass the Caring for Our Veterans Act.

“Our committee passed it out 14-1, Democrats and Republicans alike, shoulder to shoulder, voting for the right thing to do for our veterans. And we hopefully are going to do the same thing on the floor.

“The Caring for Our Veterans Act does a lot of amazing things, but it takes what we’ve learned in three years and applies it to the real world for our veterans.

“It says a veteran has choice for his or her health care, public or private, VA or private sector. The veterans with his or her doctor may determine where they want to go. The physician providing the services, if outside the system, will cooperate with the VA so we have good medical records for that veteran, and they will work together to choose doctors that have the quality, reputation and the ability to deliver the service whether in the VA or outside the VA.

“The veteran comes first in the Caring for Our Veterans Act. Not members of the Senate, not employees in the VA, but the veteran comes first. So I hope everyone will join Senator Tester and myself in seeing to it when we get this to the floor, and we are trying every day, helping us pass the Caring for Our Veterans Act.

“One last thing I will mention about the Caring for Our Veterans Act is that it also contains the funding necessary to complete the year for the VA community care health services for 2018. But more importantly, it consolidates the stove pipes of funding at the VA so we no longer have this mickey mouse game, which we’ve all experienced for the last five or six years, where the VA is always running out of money.

“Congress has never cut the VA off. When we had the biggest shutdown a few years ago, we passed bills that exempted the VA to demonstrate long and hard that we would never leave our veterans in need of healthcare coverage and waiting because we couldn’t act in Congress. We would do that again today if that were to happen.

“This is a matter of us finishing the job for our veterans and seeing to it that the VA has the resources necessary to deliver the services to our veterans.

“So for those of you that can hear this plea, understand that I came to the floor to say three things. One is ‘thank you.’ Thank you to every member of the Senate who voted with us to get us where we are today. We just passed the tenth of 11 bills we brought in this year.

“To Senator Tester, as the ranking member, thank you for your corporation. We have worked together to find a solution to every impasse that we confronted throughout the year. To the senator from Alaska who is presiding today and is a member of the committee, thank you for what you did for those veterans in need and for states of limited access to health care like Alaska. We need to make sure the Alaskan veteran has the same access and benefits they signed up for as veterans in Georgia or any other state.

“Senator Tester from Montana has worked so hard to see to it that rural America has the same type of access. There may not be as many doctors or VA facilities but we can design a system that gives them the very best access and care in that region where they choose to live can offer. And that is our challenge. Our challenge in the VA is not to say ‘well you should’ve lived somewhere else.’ Our challenge is to concentrate in the VA to see to it that where you live is the right place to be in terms of veterans services, and we are going to do that.

“And lastly, I want to thank Secretary Shulkin. He was approved 100 to nothing by the Senate. I believe I am right that he is the only cabinet member that was confirmed by the Senate 100 to nothing. We haven’t had unanimous votes on hardly anything, but we did on David Shulkin, and he has delivered in response to that 100 to nothing vote time and time again. Working for our veterans, helping to correct problems, helping to work with us together.

“I look forward to next year as we bring a close to the Caring for Our Veterans Act and pass it. Moving forward, as there are new things we need to pay attention to, I look forward to working with Senator Tester, members of the Democratic party and Republican party and our committee.

“Remember, we are veterans first, we are Americans first. God bless our veterans, and may God bless the United State of America.”

Isakson’s remarks are available to view here.

Related:
Isakson: Senate Keeping Our Promises to Our Nation’s Veterans
Isakson Urges Senate to Pass ‘Caring for Our Veterans Act’ Before Funding Runs Out
Isakson, Tester Highlight Support for Veterans’ Community Care Bill from Key Stakeholders
Committee Approves Bipartisan Legislation to Improve Veterans’ Community Care, VA Services 

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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.