Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at VA General Oversight Hearing
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chair of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's "VA General Oversight Hearing":
Good morning. Today we welcome the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Wilkie and Dr. Stone, the Executive in Charge for VHA. We appreciate you being here and look forward to exploring topics outside of the traditional budget hearing.
Mr. Secretary, you are currently leading an Agency that is facing some fairly significant changes that will fundamentally affect how veterans will receive care on a daily basis for years to come. First, we have to address the cost of care. With the passage of the Mission Act, VA will need a sustainable funding stream that continues to support core VA programs. I absolutely do not want to see Community Care funded at the expense of traditional VA Medical Services.
Second, we must make sure that the Community Care overhaul is done correctly. Although the Mission Act called for a restructuring of the Department’s outside medical care, and even though you said in your confirmation hearing that you will “oppose efforts to privatize VA,” I am very concerned that the recent access standards announced by VA will ultimately send more Veterans into the community. The subcommittee staff has shown me a flow chart (hold up chart) provided by VA regarding Community Care eligibility, and every path eventually leads to the Veteran being shifted to the community. If there is not an intentional effort to privatize the VA, it sure seems like an effort to back it into it so that is the result.
Third, we have to make sure the medical records modernization is done correctly. As you know, this complex project will cost 16 billion dollars. To put this in perspective for Members, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford, the lead of vessel of the U.S. Navy’s latest class of carriers, cost 13 billion dollars. Mr. Secretary, implementing and improving VA’s Electronic Health Record system and executing Congress’ mandate for full inter-operability with DOD’s systems has been this Committee’s top priority for several years.
Fourth, Mr. Secretary, I am curious as to why 17% of VA’s leadership positions are vacant two years into this Administration. Mr. Secretary you are in the middle of two massive overhauls and both positions, the Deputy Secretary, and the Undersecretary of Health, who are supposed to oversee the EHR modernization, and the Mission Act implementation, are currently vacant. Congress is already struggling to get detailed briefings, real transparency and a true partnership on implementing these initiatives. Those key vacancies make it even harder.
Finally, I am extremely concerned about the VA’s efforts on mental health. I was horrified to read in the Washington Post an article titled “The Parking Lot Suicides,” which detailed 19 suicides that occurred on VA campuses from October 2017 to November 2018, seven of them in parking lots, according to your Department. Mr. Secretary, the most recent parking lot suicide was in my home state of Florida. The Trump Administration has said over the past two years that preventing suicide is a top priority. You also mentioned in your State of the VA address that Veterans Suicide is one of your top priorities. So, I have to ask the question – what is going on? We have increased funding for mental health every year, and I can state for a fact that every member on this dais, every member on this Committee, and every Member in this Congress strongly supports VA Mental Health programs. Mr. Secretary, if there is one thing we need to get right, it is preventing Veterans Suicide. We must ensure you have adequate resources to do so.
Thank you both for being here today, and I look forward to your testimony, Mr. Secretary.