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Senate confirms Veterans Affairs deputy charged with fixing flawed health record system at Spokane VA, ending attempt by Tennessee senator to block appointment

UPDATED: Thu., July 15, 2021

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., speaks during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Oct. 13, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Blackburn tried to block the the appointment of Donald Remy as the deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, but the Senate agreed to confirm him on Thursday, 91-7.  (Rod Lamkey/Pool via AP)
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., speaks during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Oct. 13, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Blackburn tried to block the the appointment of Donald Remy as the deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, but the Senate agreed to confirm him on Thursday, 91-7. (Rod Lamkey/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – On Thursday, the Senate confirmed an Army veteran and former NCAA executive as the No. 2 official at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a key role tasked with overseeing the agency’s troubled new health records system.

The rollout of the system in Spokane has left VA employees demoralized and veterans without important medication.

By a vote of 91 to 8, senators approved President Joe Biden’s nomination of Donald Remy, who became the chief legal and operating officer at the National Collegiate Athletic Association after earning the rank of captain in the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps and serving in the Justice Department. His confirmation had been blocked by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who held up the process over an evolving set of complaints that delayed Remy’s first day on the job by a month.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, of which Blackburn is a member, unanimously approved Remy’s nomination May 26 and advanced it to a vote of the full Senate. But when the panel’s chairman, Democrat Jon Tester of Montana, sought to confirm Remy and three other VA nominees by unanimous consent June 15, the Tennessee lawmaker blocked the move, demanding more information from the department on a pending bill that would make it easier for veterans exposed to toxic contaminants to get disability benefits.

In an impassioned retort on the Senate floor, Tester told Blackburn she was worsening the problems she cited in her objection by keeping Remy out of a job charged with both leading the VA’s interactions with Congress and the effort to overhaul the health record system of the nation’s biggest hospital network.

“We can sit here, and we can play these games of holding up nominees to fill critical departments … and say we’re doing it on behalf of the veterans, but that is bull. Total bull,” Tester said. “Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and in the process, our veterans suffer.”

“If you want to hold VA accountable today, this is not the way to do it. If you want a VA that can function, then we have to have their staff in place.”

Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the top GOP member on the VA committee, said in a hearing Wednesday the issue behind Blackburn’s hold had been resolved, but that same day the Tennessee Republican said she would continue to oppose Remy’s nomination because of his role as the top NCAA lawyer when the organization fought lawsuits challenging its rules barring student athletes from earning money for the use of their name, image and likeness in endorsements and merchandise sales.

On Wednesday, Blackburn called Remy “the architect” of those restrictions – despite the fact that the NCAA had rules prohibiting collegiate athlete pay since its inception, roughly a century before he joined the organization in 2011 – and accused Remy of using his legal training “to maintain the culture of exploitation that defines modern college athletics.”

“I’m not sure what led President Biden to believe that Mr. Remy could lead an agency notorious for its own brand of careless exploitation,” Blackburn said, “but whatever the reason, we have a duty to get in his way.”

In an email, a Blackburn aide said Remy could not be trusted because of his NCAA role and because he failed to properly disclose his employment at the government-sponsored mortgage company Fannie Mae when he was nominated for a different role by President Barack Obama in 2009, concluding that “Mr. Remy’s (track) record suggests he hasn’t always advocated for those he was supposed to be serving.”

Forty-one Republicans and all 50 Democratic senators disagreed, opening the door for Remy to start a role VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Wednesday will be critical to fixing serious problems with the electronic health record system that was deployed at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in October.

After questioning McDonough about the findings of an internal review he ordered into the system’s flaws, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told The Spokesman-Review confirming Remy was a vital step toward solving those problems, which have resulted in a one-third decrease in productivity at the Spokane VA after staff were not adequately trained on the new system.

While individual senators can block confirmations from moving forward by voice vote, they can’t stop a vote of all 100 senators once that much more time-intensive process is started. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., scheduled a vote to end debate, and senators voted to confirm Remy Thursday.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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