Floor and Committee Statements

"Mr. President, I thank the senator from Montana, Mr. Tester, for his remarks.

“I thank him more so for his hard work, as ranking member, over the last two years with me, as chairman, and for bringing us to the point at which we are today. Jon and I are very excited because we know that Robert Wilkie is the real deal. We know the things that we have gone through with some of the previous appointees and with some of the problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) now have a chance to be overridden and solved and that we will step forward in a new day for the VA.

“We no longer want somebody who is going to make excuses for the VA. We want somebody who is going to make a difference at the VA. Robert Wilkie understands the needs of our veterans in rural areas. He understands their needs in large urban cities. He understands the threat of suicide and the need to have mental health care accessible and available to our veterans at all times. He knows all of the things we need to do. He also knows we have given him a quiver of arrows that he can use as he hunts through the VA to root out the bad players and lift the big players.

“The VA MISSION Act, as Jon Tester just mentioned, is absolutely rule number one. The implementation of that change gives our veterans the choice, our rural veterans the access, our urban veterans the accountability, and the VA the chance to maximize the delivery of healthcare services to our veterans at a cost that, over time, will be less than if the VA had done it all by itself.

“The VA is a tremendous organization. It is the state of the art in many things--in ophthalmology, for example, and in treating a lot of the signature wounds that we have today from the war— PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] and all of those.

“Our VA does a phenomenal job with all of those. Yet there are a lot of healthcare services that are routine for which veterans shouldn’t have to wait three, four and five months but that they ought to be able to get in a reasonably accessible period of time. They ought to be able to get services closest to home, where they are, and be able to get them from those who can deliver the services to them when they need them. The VA MISSION Act lets that happen.

“I am going to say a few things tonight in my remarks on the early warnings with regard to the VA MISSION Act--that it is costing a lot of money because they are going to see some requests come in for money.

“Yes, it is going to take us a little while to get over the bubble with the initial implementation, but when we do, we are going to minimize the cost and give greater service to the veterans and, over time, reduce the cost to our veterans.

“Every time we don’t require the VA to build another hospital or another clinic, we are lowering the cost of our real estate and uplifting the opportunity for us to spend more money on services. Every time we have doctors in hospitals who treat veterans who want to participate in the VA MISSION Act and the Veterans Choice Program, they will not have to add all of the other costs of infrastructure, and our veterans will get better choice, better service, better medical care, and [in] better time.

“This is an opportunity to make the change of a lifetime. We are going to make the VA something it has always wanted to be and give the veterans something they always thought they had--the best possible care at the most affordable price to the taxpayer. We will deliver a difference for our veterans and their families.

“I am proud of what the committee did [a few] weeks ago when it passed the VA MISSION Act and when it brought about caregivers’ legislation for those family members so that they may take care of loved ones from the Vietnam war era. We are going to have bills coming up that have to do with the Navy and other things like that in the year ahead. We have a lot of things we are going to do.

“I want us to stop, here and now, dragging out old stories about the VA and talking about what the VA isn’t and, instead, talk about what it is. I want to give a specific example. The press needs to stop giving a three-, four-, five-year [old Inspector General’s] IG’s report and reporting it as today’s news. Jon and I have spent more time in responding to reports about the IG or someone else--I am just picking on the IG--and about failures within the VA when, in fact, it turns out that they are from a study from 2006 when we finally get the report. They make a big deal out of it as if it were yesterday.

“Most of the issues from the Veterans Administration’s major stories--I didn’t say ‘all,’ and it never will be all--are being met and addressed faster than ever before. We have to report the good news as well as the tough news. I will stand there and respond to the tough news all day long, but I hate it when I have to call my own press conference to talk about what is really going on at the VA that is really good.

“It is absolutely essential that we be in partnership with the media--the VA itself, the VA’s employees, its service providers, and all of us in our roles in Congress as committee chairs, in leadership. It is essential that all of us join in and put our arms together and move forward in order to have a stronger, more productive, more responsible VA.

“I mentioned the VA MISSION Act and accountability. We have finally given the VA the ability to hold its employees accountable, which we have been meaning to do for a long, long time, and it is making a difference. We have the Whistleblower Protection Act, which gives whistleblowers the chance to make reports for things that they see, know, and do that are difficult and should be corrected. We have given them some degree of reasonable protection so that they are not run over instead. That is something that is important to do.

“We have talked about accountability. We have talked about all kinds of things. We will talk about one last thing, and that is rural America.

“Certainly, with Jon, I have gained a greater impression than I have before of the problems that rural America faces. Georgia has a large rural population, but, quite frankly, Georgia is a big state, and Atlanta is a big city. When you go outside Atlanta, you still have Savannah, Augusta, and a lot of places that are much bigger than the biggest city in Montana.

 

“We owe those veterans who are more distant from the services we provide, because of where they live, the opportunity to get the services faster and quicker. We are going to do that with the VA MISSION Act. I appreciate Jon’s leadership in doing that as it has made a real difference.

“What I have tried to do with the hotlines on mental health for the veterans who call in--whose lives are in danger or who are in danger of taking their own lives or who need help or counseling then and now--is to make sure they are no longer getting hung up on, to make sure they are no longer getting referred to other operators, to make sure they are no longer getting called back tomorrow after leaving voice mails. It is to make sure they are getting action right here and right now--today.

“We owe it to our veterans whose lives are at risk today--the same thing they do every day when they serve us in uniform and their lives are at risk every day overseas.

“We have a chance to do a wonderful thing, and that is to keep our promise. We have to change and deliver quality healthcare to our veterans and deliver a better response to our veterans than they have ever had before.

“We have the chance to fix the problems that we have had and to look to the future for new solutions to other problems that will face us. We owe our veterans no less than the best secretary, and we have him in Robert Wilkie.  

“I told Robert: ‘You have no excuses. I have heard all of the excuses I ever want to hear about this. We know what we have to do, and we know when we need to do it. It is now. We have to know how to do it, and it is with you as the secretary of the VA.’

“I commend him to my fellow members of the U.S. Senate.

“I thank Chairman Roe, from the House of Representatives’ [Veterans Affairs’ Committee], and for the hard work that they have done in bringing this together with Jon and I and seeing to it we have a great secretary.

“We are going to lock arms and be in lockstep next year to make the VA perform even better than it has before. We are here to make sure that the VA has no excuses on the results, that it gets the backing it needs from us, that those veterans who have served us get the healthcare they need, and that the veterans who join us today to defend us in the future will have it there when they retire.

“I urge senators to vote for Robert Wilkie to be secretary of the VA, our 10th most recent VA appointee, and to give him a unanimous vote today, which is the kind of support he needs to move forward in the 21st century.

“God bless all for being here today. I thank the Senators for their votes. I thank Senator Tester for his support as ranking member, and I thank the Senator from Kansas for his support throughout the year.

“I yield to the senator from North Carolina.”

###