This week’s Courier Herald column:
Johnny Isakson is on a mission.
Several years ago I asked Georgia’s Senior Senator why he was still doing what he was doing. Washington seemed like it was becoming unpleasant. The President and Congress were controlled by opposite parties, and getting to 60 votes in the Senate seemed impossible most of the time anyway. Back at home, factions within the Republican party were battling with each other, and being “anti-establishment” seemed overly fashionable.
His answer was direct and without hesitation. He reminded me that his earlier career was in real estate, and that the deal he always wanted was the one that he was told “couldn’t be done”. All he asked was that the interested parties would come to the table, and he would close the deal.
He was emphatic and blunt. He said there was work to be done, and he was going to get some things fixed, even while everyone was giving up on Washington.
Several years later, much remains the same with a few things being different. There’s a Republican President willing to sign legislation that can get through the House and get 60 votes in the Senate. Many bills have difficulty meeting those thresholds. The exception has been legislation moving through Senator Isakson’s Veterans Affairs Committee.
Last week, President Trump signed into law the VA Mission Act, or as officially named to honor Senator John McCain, the John S. McCain III, Daniel Akaka, and Samuel R. Johnson VA Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks Act. The bill represents 18 months of work by Isakson and his committee, in an effort to radically change and improve the care given to our nation’s veterans.
The law allows veterans to seek medical care outside the VA system from private hospitals and doctors. This should help eliminate the backlog of veterans waiting for care, as well as provide options for veterans who find the care offered by VA facilities falling short of their needs. The law also removes barriers to allow for use of telemedicine and strengthens the process for prescribing opioids.
Senator Isakson’s remarks after the signing included “This is a truly meaningful victory for our nation’s veterans, who will benefit from more choice and fewer barriers to care. The signing of this legislation marks the completion of the final piece in a great mosaic of veterans reforms that we set out to accomplish over the last two years. I thank President Trump for his unwavering support for our veterans, and I appreciate my colleagues in Congress who upheld our commitment to our veterans by voting for some of the most significant reforms to-date to improve the VA’s current healthcare delivery system.”
The “great mosaic” he speaks of is what makes the effort to pass legislation to overhaul the Veterans Administration significant in modern Congressional terms. The Mission Act is the 16th piece of veterans’ legislation passed and signed into law in the last 18 months.
Other bills signed into law have increased accountability for the VA and its employees. Community care has been expanded. Benefits have been stripped from VA employees who have committed felonies related to their work. The claims process has been modernized. And veterans now receive expanded education benefits and the G.I. Bill has been improved.
All of this has required additional funding for the VA, which has been steadily increased over the past two years.
The Mission Act is the capstone of this wave of legislation, but no one is suggesting a “mission accomplished” banner be hung at the Veterans Administration. The problems at the VA are deeply rooted and systemic. Bureaucracies don’t change overnight, but the VA now has 16 pieces of dedicated legislation to provide guidance, funding, and motivation.
There remains work to be done at the Veterans Administration. Senator Isakson remains in Washington, getting things done, continuing his mission, and working to make sure the promises made to our veterans are kept within the VA system.