Videos & Speeches

A number of my colleagues both Republican and Democrat from the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee were on the floor just a few moments ago, and I would like to join them in expressing genuine concern about continued developments at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many of us remember the tremendous circumstances that our veterans found themselves in at hospitals across the country with long waiting lines, with lists that were inappropriate – didn’t really exist – in an effort, I suppose, to camouflage the delay that a veteran was experiencing, that veterans were experiencing across the country. And yet at the same time, to demonstrate that veterans were being cared for, the VA wanted to show that things were fine, and yet we saw that that was not the case.

Those headlines unfortunately continue about the Department of Veterans Affairs. And for years, we’ve heard reports – those reports of long wait lines, privacy issues, failure to remove employees whose actions endanger the health and safety of our veterans. And many of us have worked to try to give the Department of Veterans Affairs, its leadership, greater authorities to discipline, to discharge those wrongdoers who are at the Department of Veterans Affairs. And generally, my focus has been on the upper echelon, the leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs generally considered to be the top 400 executives at the VA. I am always nervous about the issue of the employees who are actually providing the care – the staff that provide the care for our veterans in the hospital. I don't want them to be a scapegoat for problems at the hospital when I think the most serious challenge the VA faces is its leadership.

So, those stories are continuing and we keep waiting for accountability to occur. It’s been something the current Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs has said he cares greatly about, but even when it comes to the circumstances we found, particularly at the hospital – the VA hospital in Phoenix – we still have yet to see disciplinary action take place. And now it is too long: it’s 2 years. It seems to me that 2 years is too long in which we see any real concrete effort at discharging those in positions who wrongfully use that position and fail to provide the necessary care and treatment for veterans.

The secretary of the department indicated in an interview back in November of 2014 – it’s a “60 Minutes” interview, I happened to watch it – the Secretary referred to a report that was generated in 2014 that listed more than 1,000 VA employees who should be removed from the VA for violations: “people who violated our values,” these are his words: “its integrity, its advocacy, its respect, its excellence.'' He also described with other news outlets that he would be taking “aggressive, expeditious, disciplinary action'' to address the wrongdoers that violated VA values.

It was made abundantly clear that Congress needed to give him the necessary tools to discipline VA employees because he was “hamstrung” by the current process with the Merit Systems Protection Board and the appeals process. Congress did that. And while we may not remember the provisions of the Choice Act because what it’s known for is the efforts to provide veterans across the country who live long distances from a VA facility or who can’t get the services they need within 30 days from the VA, gave them hometown local options. That’s what the Choice Act was known for, but the Choice Act also included important accountability provisions. So the Secretary has those provisions now with the passage of the Choice Act that occurred in August of 2014. Those authorities are seemingly the ones the Secretary has been reluctant to use. And so we have complained about the reluctance at the VA to use those authorities and to discipline members of the leadership, employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but now we just learned, as my colleagues earlier indicated, that the leadership of the VA refuses to use the authorities at all. So it’s not just a reluctance. It’s now an admission that we are not going to use them.

As disappointed as I am as a Member of Congress, as my colleagues are who spoke earlier in this VA decision, our frustration has to be nothing – nothing – compared to what our nation's veterans experience in their dissatisfaction with a VA that declines to hold accountable those who work in leadership positions. We ought to be honoring their service. What Department would you expect to care for, to treat, to love and show compassion for more than our Department of Veterans Affairs? And who would we expect to receive that kind of noble treatment? It would be those who served us in our military. Americans, both veterans and nonveterans, are waiting for the VA to step up and do what is right by removing those who have no place within the VA system.

I also would say, as I talk to Department of Veterans [Affairs] employees – those who actually work in the hospitals and provide the benefits, who man the computers, they’re dissatisfied too. They want to see change at the VA. So many, many employees are looking for leadership at the VA that holds accountable those in leadership who have failed to bring about the necessary change, and to have that necessary change takes discipline of those who are wrongdoers.

So, I want to make certain that people understand this is not an attack on those who work at the VA. They, too, want a VA system that they can be proud to work for. And I acknowledge and pay my respect and regard to the many, many, many employees of the Department who work every day to make certain that good things happen and that care is provided for those who served our nation.

It’s unfortunate, it seems to me, that the VA – they blame everybody but themselves for the problems at the VA. And in fact, just earlier this year, a couple months ago, April of 2016, the Secretary indicated that the fault – the inability to fix these problems – the fault lied with Congress for not giving the VA enough money. He said that budgetary failure led to the crisis. We’ve worked hard to make certain and, in fact I have indicated that if you can show a demonstrated need for more money at the Department of Veterans Affairs to take care of those who served our country, I am one who will vote for that.

No one asked those who served our country about what it was going to cost to go to war. We ought not be unwilling to pay the price for those who did go to war on our behalf.

But I would say the VA’s problems are not budgetary. President Obama himself stated that the VA is the most funded agency across the federal government with an increase of more than 80 percent in resources since 2009. I remember reading this quote. The president said the most resourced agency in his administration, in his time in office, was the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The blame for the VA’s inadequacies have nothing to do with the demand or insufficient funds, but [with] the management and lack of leadership. In fact, according to the VA’s own data, veterans are waiting 50 percent longer to receive health care services than they were in 2014 when we realized the crisis existed. At the height of the crisis, we had a waiting list. That waiting list is now 50 percent longer than then. It has become clear that the VA seemingly is more concerned with protecting those who work there within their ranks and the leadership than protecting the veteran who has sacrificed so much for our nation. The VA was created to serve veterans, not to serve the VA.

Today my colleagues from the Veterans’ Affairs Committee were here raising their desire to give the secretary even more authority and express their frustration, which I share, with the lack of urgency to hold bad actors accountable. And in that process of the conversation that took place earlier, they were advocating for legislation that is pending before the Senate called the Veterans First Act that was passed by our Veterans’ Affairs Committee weeks ago, and they believe that legislation will give the Secretary even additional authorities. And that’s true.

Senator Blumenthal, the Senator from Connecticut, the ranking member of the committee and I worked to include in the Veterans First Act a number of accountability provisions aimed to try to fix the VA at the root of its problem: at the top.

So while I agree with the desire to see the Veterans First Act passed into law and while I agree that it will give the Secretary and others at the Department of Veterans Affairs more authority to hold accountable bad actors at the VA, I think what we really need to make certain happens is that the Secretary and the leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs uses the authority they already have provided them by Congress in August of 2014 to hold people accountable.

If actions this week tell us anything, we must push the VA to use the authorities they already have, and we would have cause, reason to be skeptical that even giving them greater authorities would result in a better outcome.

Our nation’s veterans deserve better, and they deserve a VA in which those who do wrong pay a consequence for that bad behavior.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.