By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — As Congress kicked off its 114th session last month, key committees that shape defense and veterans legislation welcomed new leaders.
Among those leaders was Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who took over the committee chair position for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He replaces Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Both the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee are now led by Republicans.
“We are at a critical moment in history with the VA, and I will be fiercely committed as chairman of the Senate committee to making sure the Department of Veterans Affairs seizes this moment and rises to meet the challenge of implementing these reforms for our nation’s veterans. There’s no greater call for us in Congress than to bring value back to the VA and our veterans,” Isakson said in a statement.
Isakson served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 — and has been a member of the Senate VA Committee since he joined the Senate in 2005. He will chair not only the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee but also the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. His office said he is the only Senate Republican to chair two committees in the 114th Congress.
On defense issues, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a former POW and Republican presidential nominee, took the gavel of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“It is a singular honor to be given the great responsibility of leading the Senate Armed Services Committee,” he said in a statement.
McCain, who often is outspoken on defense issues, has been critical of cuts proposed in the defense budget in recent years. He also has been vocal about the problems at the Phoenix VA. Last month, he was urging President Barack Obama to visit the Phoenix VA on his trip to Phoenix, which did not occur.
“It has been nine months since reports surfaced of veterans dying due to gross mismanagement and neglect at the Phoenix VA, and, despite the passage of bipartisan reform legislation, our veterans community continues to have a serious lack of trust in the VA,” McCain said.
In the House, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) officially became the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He previously served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as well as on the Budget Committee, Resources Committee and the Select Committee on Homeland Security.
Also taking on a new position is Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV), a physician who will chair the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee. His committee is responsible for military personnel policy and military healthcare, among other issues. Heck has opposed the administration’s proposals to raise pharmaceutical copays and other compensation and benefits changes.
Meanwhile, lawmakers wasted no time introducing legislation last month. Among those bills was one introduced by House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) that would give the VA secretary the authority to recoup bonuses paid to VA employees in certain circumstances.
Lawmakers have been irate that bonuses have been paid to leaders at VA hospitals that have been under investigation for falsifying wait times. Miller’s office explained that the legislation also is intended “to eliminate confusion among VA officials” who have made what the congressman’s office called “contradictory statements” about the department’s authority to recoup bonuses.
“Ideally, VA employees and executives who collected bonuses under false pretenses should be subject to prosecution when warranted, but, at a minimum, their bonuses should be paid back in full. I urge my colleagues to support this bill so the VA secretary will have another tool to instill some much-needed accountability throughout the department,” Miller said in a written statement.
The House also moved to pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (Clay Hunt SAV) Act. The bill, which was strongly supported by advocacy groups in recent months, was reintroduced last month after it failed to make it out of Congress during their last session. The bill requires VA to create an interactive website to serve as a centralized source of information regarding all department mental health services. It also authorizes VA to conduct a student loan repayment pilot program aimed at recruiting and retaining psychiatrists, among other things.
“The Clay Hunt SAV Act represents a major step forward in the fight to end veteran suicide. I’m pleased the House took swift action in the 114th Congress to move this bill forward,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) said in a written statement.
A facility-specific survey found that 138 of 140 VA facilities reported shortages of medical officers, with psychiatry and primary care positions being the most frequently listed.
When Terrence O’Neil, MD, retired as chief of nephrology at the James H. Quillen VAMC in Johnson City in December 2016, he left in his wake decades of work treating kidney disease—nearly 35 years in the Air Force and DoD, plus 11 more at VA.