Lawmakers issue bipartisan call for more transparency from VA

By NIKKI WENTLING | Stars and Stripes | Published: February 4, 2019

WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats in Congress asked Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Monday to work with them more closely and openly as the agency implements sweeping reforms in coming months.

In a letter, leaders of the veterans affairs and appropriations committees urged Wilkie for a “more collaborative relationship with Congress in the near-term.” Since he was confirmed in July, Wilkie’s team at the VA has provided briefings that were “somewhat limited in scope and details,” they wrote.

“As we begin a new Congress, we expect regular, detailed briefings to continue and that you will take a collaborative approach that maximizes transparency and demonstrates your intent that Congress be a full and true partner in implementation of these critical laws and initiatives,” the letter reads.

It was signed by Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Jon Tester, D-Mont., John Boozman, R-Ark., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Reps. Mark Takano, D-Calif., Phil Roe, R-Tenn., Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and John Carter, R-Texas.

In response to the letter, VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour said the VA was “more transparent than ever before.”

In fiscal year 2018, the agency participated in 71 congressional hearings, a 20 percent increase from fiscal year 2017, Cashour said. He added the VA conducted more than 1,302 briefings, a 54 percent increase from the previous year.

“We welcome congressional oversight, and Secretary Wilkie’s cooperative relationship with lawmakers has helped VA achieve more substantive reforms than at any other time in decades,” Cashour said.

He also said the VA would respond directly to the lawmakers’ letter.

The letter was the latest in a series of calls from lawmakers for more transparency from the VA, though previous pleadings were made largely by Democrats.

Last week, after the VA publicly announced proposed rules to expand veterans’ access to private doctors, lawmakers and veterans organizations complained about little forewarning or information about the proposals. The draft rules are part of the VA Mission Act, a major VA reform law scheduled to take effect in June that the lawmakers said would “fundamentally transform the delivery of veterans’ health care.”

In addition to the new law, the VA is also undertaking a multibillion-dollar project to overhaul its electronic health records, as well as improve its claims appeals process and extend benefits to more veteran caregivers.

Late last year, the VA faced a host of technology problems as it implemented congressionally mandated changes to its GI Bill. The deadline to implement the reforms has been extended to later in 2019.

“With all of the reforms underway simultaneously, it is vital for the VA to share information openly – even pre-decisional information – so that we can work together and have a common understanding of the impact of the changes, including costs, and are able to assess the impact any changes will have on other parts of VA,” the lawmakers wrote.

A Senate Committee on Appropriations subpanel, led by Boozman, was scheduled to hold an oversight hearing Tuesday on the electronic health record project. Takano, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, promised a hearing in the “imminent future” about the VA’s proposals for the Mission Act.

Twitter: @nikkiwentling