WASHINGTON—Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) vowed that addressing benefits for Blue Water Navy Veterans “is no longer going to be a question,” but that “how we do it is the only question.”

“We don’t have scientific conclusive proof … but we do know there is a problem … We need to look at the facts and see where they lead us. We need to be right and fair with our veterans,” Isakson said.

Veterans’ groups have urged Congress to pass legislation expanding presumption of Agent Orange exposure to veterans who served offshore of Vietnam. While the House passed a bill addressing benefits for these veterans, the VA has opposed the bill, including in a letter from VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Isakson said the committee will work with Wilkie to find an acceptable solution, explaining, “We are going to work together as a team. We are going to decide what we have got to do and what we need to get, and we are going to get this problem solved.”

Those comments came at a Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing, where Wilkie testified on the state of VA after his first 60 days. During the hearing, several lawmakers emphasized the need to address benefits for so-called Blue Water Navy veterans.

“To a lot of Blue Water Navy veterans it sounds like the VA is standing in the way of our efforts to pass this legislation. I don’t think that you see it that way. I’m not sure I see it that way, but I want to again emphasize the importance of this,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told Wilkie.

Brown said the issue of benefits of Blue Water Navy veterans comes up at every roundtable he attends in his state.

“We will keep the pressure on you,” he told Wilkie.

In response, Wilkie pledged “to work with the committee to ensure we are just and we are equitable on both ends.”

“I just want to make sure we get it right,” he added.

What the solution would be was unclear. Wilkie explained in a written statement to the committee that VA’s position is that the agency does not believe “the available scientific evidence currently supports a presumption of service connection in this case.” The VA has commissioned a study on the issue, with initial results expected in 2019.

Wilkie also noted in the statement that the VA is concerned “that congressionally-mandated presumptions not supported adequately by evidence would erode confidence in the soundness and fairness of the veterans’ disability benefits system, creating the impression that the system can be gamed by political activism.”

State of VA

On other issues, Wilkie told lawmakers that the state of VA is “better” and that “the turmoil of the first half of 2018 is now in the rearview mirror.”

“What this means in terms of leadership is that our new team is now on the same page, speaking with one unified voice on behalf of veterans,” he said.

He also told lawmakers that it is not “business as usual” at VA.

“This is fundamental transformation not seen since World War II when Omar Bradley headed the Veterans Administration,” he said of the agency.

Among the expected changes is implementation of the MISSION Act, which will entail consolidating all of VA’s community care efforts into a single program designed to be easier to navigate. Wilkie told lawmakers that VA has begun drafting the required regulations for the transformation, and several significant regulations are targeted for publication in the summer of 2019.

“It is my goal to make sure that the veteran will experience the continuum of service where he or she desires. That is one of the more revolutionary changes that comes out of MISSION,” Wilkie said.

In terms of wait times for care, he told lawmakers that the average time it took to complete an urgent referral to a specialist has decreased at the VHA from 19.3 days in Fiscal Year 2014 to 1.3 days during July of 2018.

When it comes to staffing, Wilkie reported that, so far in FY 2018 (October 1, 2017, to July 31, 2018), VA has seen a net increase of more than 9,500 employees, including 3,600 hired for mission-critical occupations. As of June 30, VA had 45,239 overall vacancies, out of a total of 419,353 full-time authorized and budgeted positions.

“Our average annual turnover rate is 9.2%, which beats the 11% of Cabinet-level agencies in the last two years, as well as the 20% to 30% in the healthcare industry in America,” Wilkie emphasized.