Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On Needed Reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs

Mr. President, following the resignation of Secretary Shinseki last week, it is time for some deep soul-searching about the future of the Department of Veterans Affairs. As details slowly emerge from the inspector general's investigation, I am struck by a disturbing aspect of organizational culture within the VA that prioritizes meeting goals and checking boxes instead of providing true quality care for veterans. Secretary Shinseki himself was a decorated veteran, and I am sure he must have been as frustrated as all of us to find some of the things that were happening.

   There is an overwhelming current rushing toward the path of least resistance for ``reporting'' care for the men and women who served this Nation admirably and with dedication. But we should not lose sight of the hard work and commitment of the many men and women working in the VA system every day striving to provide effective and timely care to veterans. We have to tell ourselves that there is really no shortcut to quality care for veterans. The VA has rightly been under intense pressure and scrutiny to live up to the promise we made to veterans when they agreed to serve.

   We have many people in this body and the other body who voted for a war that I think historians will call a disaster--the war in Iraq. For the first time in America's history, they voted for a war and did not do anything to pay for it--no tax to pay for it or anything else. Ten years later, though, they say: We have to watch the cost of VA health care and all that; we have to find the money. Well, that did not bother them when they sent these men and women to war. Let's take care of them now.

   It has become apparent that at facilities across the United States some VA employees have decided to choose to simply tell those above them and those of us with oversight responsibility what they want to hear, over providing quality care in a timely fashion. And that is appalling and unacceptable.

   But most VA employees are tireless servants. Many are veterans themselves. For those men and women who give their all for our veterans, it is becoming evident that the system of incentives and disincentives may have worked against them. For example, it appears that the criteria for bonuses are too weighted towards reported metrics, rather than toward taking the time to understand the outcomes behind the statistics. What sort of message is sent to good employees when their ``success'' depends only on a small part of the picture of veterans' care?

   There should be no shortcut to quality care for veterans in Washington policymaking circles either. The mere replacement of a cabinet secretary results in neither accountability nor reform. Even widespread firing of SES-level government employees will not automatically result in providing quality care for veterans. Other meaningful and more comprehensive reforms are needed, and without delay. Earlier this year my distinguished colleague from Vermont Senator Sanders introduced an expansive collection of many needed reforms. Unfortunately, like so many bills we have tried to consider this year, partisan objections stalled progress based on procedural rather than substantive matters. Some of the same people who have been so critical of this administration and the VA were the same ones who voted to block going forward with needed reforms.

   Well, the Senate is going to get another opportunity to consider a comprehensive collection of reforms. It must prompt some meaningful bipartisan action here in the Senate. Let's not play ``gotcha.'' Let's play ``help you'' to the veterans. That is what we need to do. Congress has an obligation to consider, debate, and vote on the reforms needed to make our system of care for veterans both efficient and effective.

   My wife began her nursing career as a brand new registered nurse in a VA hospital. I know how hard she and those around her worked. They were veterans of a different generation, but they needed help and care just as much as everybody else.

   So I look forward to the Senate's consideration of the legislation introduced yesterday by Senator Sanders. I am proud to cosponsor it. Many reforms are needed within the VA, and the Ensuring Veterans Access to Care Act takes important steps toward achieving these changes.

   Of course, additional reforms are needed. So today I am introducing legislation to address one shortfall at the VA that has existed far too long. Current law provides a disincentive to cost-effective, onsite medical care solutions when operating rooms are refurbished or rebuilt within a VA hospital or care facility. Because the VA must report any major medical facility costs exceeding $10 million to Congress, the VA is encouraged to pay for veterans care at outside facilities, including travel to and from those facilities, out of the medical services account. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is a different pot of money. So that way they do not have to have an extensive report. But the best solution for veterans and the bottom line may very well be a temporary onsite facility.

   The bill is simple but attempts to take the allure of a shortcut away by ensuring that the expenses of temporary offsite care are also calculated and reported.

   Senator Sanders, the chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, has said: ``If you think it's too expensive to take care of our veterans, then don't send them to war.'' He is right. We paid for two unfunded wars on a credit card. Now it is time we invest in those who put themselves in harm's way to protect our security. It is time for us to worry about some of the things we need to do here at home. It is time.

Press Contact

Press Contact
David Carle: 202-224-3693