The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, now under Republican control, said Wednesday that it would make its mission to keep a closer eye on the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, including holding hearings at Secretary Robert McDonald’s headquarters and traveling to Arizona to get a firsthand look at the office that denied veterans care by trapping them on secret waiting lists.
Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the new chairman of the committee, said getting beyond the grounds of the Capitol is critical to forcing the VA to be held accountable after the waiting list scandal and other reports of poor care and bureaucracy run amok.
“Anybody can have a hearing with members of the VA sitting out there giving us testimony telling us what they want us to hear, but we’re going to go to the VA and have a lot of our meetings,” Mr. Isakson said Wednesday during his first committee meeting as chairman.
Veterans advocates praised the new focus of the committee, saying the VA needs the oversight after the wait-time scandal, in which clinics throughout the country were manipulating data.
“I really think it’s night and day from how we saw the committee run last year,” said Alex Nicholson, legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “There’s no doubt [former Chairman] Bernie Sanders was very passionate about veterans issues and making sure the VA was defended and taken care of, but there was a noticeable lack of oversight and there was a lack of activity in the committee last year.”
Mr. Isakson said the committee’s next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 3, would be in Mr. McDonald’s office at VA headquarters in Washington. At that meeting, each department head at the VA will tell the secretary and lawmakers how they corrected mistakes, what challenges they face and what resources they need to do their job better, Mr. Isakson said.
Walinda West, a spokeswoman for the VA, said the agency “welcomes the opportunity to work with members of Congress,” but did not know about the Feb. 3 meeting Mr. Isakson referenced.
“Caring for our nation’s veterans is a shared responsibility, and we all want to ensure veterans receive the best care and services possible,” Ms. West said.
Mr. Isakson also said the committee will take two field trips this year: one to either Orlando, Florida, or to Denver, where construction projects have been grossly mismanaged, and one to Phoenix, where a whistleblower last year said veterans were dying while waiting for care.
“I think this committee owes is to the veterans of America to go to Phoenix and see what’s been done in Phoenix to correct those problems,” he said.
Ian de Planque, legislative director at the American Legion, said getting a firsthand look at the on-the-ground operations will help senators understand what veterans are facing when they try to get help.
“It makes a big difference,” he said. “I think no matter how well-intentioned an idea might be in [the] central Washington [office], how it actually works where the rubber meets the road can be different, so it’s important to get out there.”
While the Senate committee conducted minimal oversight of the wait-time scandal last year, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, controlled by Republicans, held weekly hearings throughout the summer and forced VA witnesses to explain the situation.
In those hearings, members asked whether official testimonies were accurate. Some acknowledged that VA statistics weren’t reliable because so many problems were discovered in the data-keeping process.
Mr. Isakson said the Senate committee needs to be more active, particularly in overseeing how the VA is carrying out the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which became law last summer and was designed to fix some of the problems exposed by the waitlist scandal.
“I’ve always felt like if I’m out of sight, out of mind, then nobody cares what I think,” Mr. Isakson said. “But if I care enough to go to them, if we go to them to ask questions and have the committee there, we’re going to be a better committee and the veterans choice bill will be implemented because they know we’re watching.”