Serving those who served us

America is the greatest country in the world because of those who have put their lives on the line to defend it. From the 18-year-old high school graduate who just enlisted to the veterans of all our wars and conflicts who depend on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for healthcare and benefits, we as a nation have an obligation to serve those who have served us. When I took over as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the VA was in the middle of a major wait-time scandal that emerged in Phoenix. An independent assessment of the VA has revealed delays in care, scandal-ridden cover-ups, a rampant lack of accountability and deficient leadership throughout the organization. It was clear that the VA had lost its bearings, and we as a committee set forth to work hand in hand with VA Secretary Robert McDonald to right the wrongs and address problems as they arose to ensure the VA returned to its core mission of serving our deserving veterans.

When the Phoenix wait-time scandal emerged, it became abundantly clear that the VA was not delivering effective and timely healthcare. In response, Congress passed sweeping reforms in the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 to fundamentally change the way the VA delivers healthcare to our veterans and immediately address systemic deficiencies at the VA. In addition to other reforms, the Choice Act created the Veterans Choice Program, which puts veterans in charge of where they receive care. Instead of waiting months for care at a VA facility, qualifying veterans now have the opportunity to seek healthcare outside the system and through doctors in their own communities.

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The gravity of what was revealed by the scandal in Phoenix necessitated a fast response from Congress. We gave the VA the tools it needed to provide timely and quality care to our veterans through the Choice Program. As chairman, I said from day one that my top priority would be overseeing the Choice Program’s implementation and fixing problems that arise from it. The committee has held four hearings on the Choice Program this year, including field hearings in Georgia and Alaska. It is important that we hear directly from veterans and the VA about their experiences in accessing and adapting to these new tools. Congress has passed numerous provisions this year to improve the Choice Program by allowing more veterans to qualify to receive healthcare in their community, increasing the pool of non-VA providers eligible for the program and requiring the VA to streamline its seven non-VA healthcare programs into a seamless Choice Program.

Congress continues to do its part to help the VA fix its problems, but the VA must combat its own corruption. This means bringing in permanent leaders to enact permanent change. This means holding accountable bad actors who are putting themselves above veterans. This means enacting consistent reforms throughout the agency and VA facilities throughout the country. This means working with Congress to develop effective legislation to improve the VA.

When I first started serving in the Senate, I became pen pals with 1st Lt. Noah Harris of Georgia, who tragically died in Iraq in 2005. His motto was, “I do what I can,” and that’s a motto I live by. I do all I can as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to help veterans who served like Noah. Congress is doing what it can. I only ask that the VA do the same.

Isakson is Georgia’s senior senator, serving since 2005. He is chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and also sits on the Finance; the Foreign Relations; and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. He served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966 to 1972.