What Others Are Saying

While some elected officials seem mired in the daily Washington dramas, others have stayed focused on what needs to be done.

A good example of this ethic is Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson. He’s been using his power as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs to correct the long-frustrating mess at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the past year, Isakson’s committee has sent 10 major pieces of veterans legislation through to become law. These include a law to help former service members see answers to appeals more quickly, an accountability and whistleblower’s act to quickly remove underperforming staffers and an extension of education benefits under the GI Bill.

There are 20 million veterans in the United States and there are more than 700,000 veterans living in Georgia and nearly 40,000 in the Coastal Empire. They’ve earned our support for their work fighting for our country and our freedoms.

The reforms enacted are complicated and will take equal focus to execute. Outstanding problems include information technology and communication, benefits and benefits claims. Veterans face a myriad of health problems stemming from service. Treatment requires long-term care and time away from work.

Even as access to care options grows, there are more than 470,000 outstanding appeals stuck in an onerous process that can take years to resolve.

On Wednesday, Isakson and his committee held what he called “an accountability meeting” to help work through the cruel lag in help the new laws are intended to end.

He pressured Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to outline the progress so far and any challenges to the implementation of the work the committee has done. Shulkin said he’s making progress on some things, but others are slow.

While Congress continues to pass legislation to help Shulkin reorganize operations into a quicker and more supportive branch, the Trump Administration still has not filled key senior VA positions that require Senate approval: undersecretary for benefits, undersecretary for health, assistant secretary for information technology and assistant secretary for accountability and whistleblower protection. The benefits position has been vacant since October 2015. The others have been open nearly a year. Without direction, the new laws can’t effectively help those they must.

While Shulkin says he’s closer to filling the jobs, the vetting process remains under way on several waves of candidates.

“’A’ for effort is not good enough,” Isakson told Shulkin.

On a more positive note, Shulkin told the committee Wednesday the new processes for addressing appeals seems to be working in early demonstrations. He believes it will be used for all appeals by early 2019.

Currently, any veteran who has a pending appeal may opt in to the new process, and he’s encouraging them to do that. About 3 percent of waiting veterans have chosen to move their appeal to the new process. Shulkin said early results show decisions have been made in 30 days and 75 percent of them have been in favor of the veteran. That welcome improvement comes on top of last year’s progress where 30,000 more appeals were decided than in the previous year.

Isakson agreed that the appeals backlog showed “light years improvement” but still believes there’s more work to be done.

In this day, when it’s easy to get cynical about the work our elected representatives are doing – or not doing, Isakson’s work on behalf of veterans and the accountability he expects is reassuring. And he’s insisting on bipartisan support for work that goes to the Senate floor from his committee.

“My goal as chairman of the committee is to find a positive resolution no matter what problem I confront,” he told the committee on Wednesday. “Our veterans deserve the best of us.”

They certainly do.

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