As an Army veteran, I believe we have no higher commitment than to take care of our active duty military, their families, and our veterans. As Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, you have my word that we will never allow our soldiers to return home to anything less than a hero’s welcome.
As a veteran and a physician, I am excited to get to work on reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). As Chairman, my top priority is putting veterans back in charge of how they receive healthcare from the VA. I am working to improve the quality and timeliness of care that veterans receive both in and out of VA health care facilities, as well as to ensure the benefits earned by our veterans are never delayed, dismantled or reneged upon.
Veterans Choice Program
In April 2014, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs discovered that many VA patients seeking care were being put on secret waiting lists—resulting in long, unreported wait times. These delays allegedly resulted in the deaths of over 40 veterans.
In response, Congress passed, and the president signed, H.R. 3230, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. I was honored to have served as a member of the conference committee that negotiated the final bill with the Senate. This law gives veterans who have waited more than 30 days for an appointment—or who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility—the choice to seek VA-funded care outside of the VA system.
My colleagues and I on the Committee have been holding hearings on how to improve the Veterans Choice Program. Already this year, President Trump signed two pieces of legislation that our committee produced, H.R. 369 and S. 114, both of which provide additional funding for the Choice program to continue operating.As Chairman, I am now working to reauthorize and improve the Choice program to better serve veterans better and offer true choice. You can follow those efforts at veterans.house.gov/Choice.
I am proud that one of the first bills our committee passed under President Trump’s leadership was the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017. This legislation provides the VA Secretary increased flexibility to remove, demote, or suspend any VA employee, including Senior Executive Service employees, for poor performance or misconduct. It also provides improved protections for whistleblowers, who have proved to be invaluable in uncovering and addressing issues within the department. Already, VA Secretary David Shulkin has put the law to good use. As of October 2017, more than 1,000 VA employees have been proposed for removal because they failed in their duty to serve veterans. You can track the department’s efforts to bring accountability to VA on their accountability page.
In the past several years, VA’s civil service rules have kept the department from firing an employee who engaged in an armed robbery and an employee who showed up drunk in the operating room; from recouping $400,000 in relocation benefits from two senior employees who abused their authority; and from holding employees accountable for their failures to manage major construction projects, including the new hospital in Aurora, Colorado that is now several years and nearly a billion dollars over-budget.
Prior to our accountability bill being signed into law, it took up to 264 days for an appeal to move through the process when trying to remove a bad employee. The Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act sped up that process, giving the department the ability to bring in and retain quality people while also more quickly bringing finality to VA employees who have appeals pending.
The lack of accountability at the VA isn’t just a failure to our heroes, it’s dangerous. As I’ve said time and time again, the vast majority of VA employees – many I consider friends – are good, hard-working people. However, the bad actions of a few are tainting the good name of many, and it’s time to bring real change to the department.
Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017
One of my proudest achievements so far in the 115th Congress was the passage of H.R. 3218, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017. This bill, also known as the “Forever G.I. Bill,” expands access to G.I. Bill benefits for our veterans. Some of the important provisions of the Forever G.I. Bill include: removing the time limit restrictions on the benefit, meaning troops would have the benefit for life instead of the current 15 year timeframe; requiring schools to give priority enrollment to veterans for courses; increasing GI Bill funding for reservists, guardsmen, dependents, and Gold Star families; providing 100% eligibility for GI Bill benefits to Purple Heart recipients; providing additional benefits to servicemembers and veterans in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees; and providing GI Bill benefits back to veterans whose schools close on them during the semester; among other expansions and improvements.
These changes ensure the men and women who fought for our country, and their families, can use a benefit that is unlike any other and receive an education if and when they want it. President Trump signed this bill into law on August 16, 2017, and I look forward to it being fully implemented by the VA in the near future.
National Desert Storm and Desert Shield War Memorial Act
I sponsored H.R. 503, the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield War Memorial Act, which was signed into law as part of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, on December 19, 2014. This law authorizes the construction of a lasting memorial to veterans of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, paid for entirely with private funds. The United States currently lacks a national memorial dedicated to the valor and sacrifices made by the nearly 600,000 members of our Armed Forces who were deployed to serve in these operations. In March 2017, President Trump signed legislation I sponsored in the House to approve a site on the National Mall for this memorial. I am hoping final site selection will be approved in the near future.
Invisible Wounds Caucus
As our veterans and service members continue to return from Iraq and Afghanistan, we must be prepared to address new needs, such as treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I am the co-founder of the Invisible Wounds Caucus, whose purpose is to educate and seek solutions to better address the unseen challenges our men and women in uniform may face after serving our country abroad. I will work to continue to give a voice to those suffering from these wounds as Chairman.
Interoperable Health Records for Military and Veterans
For years, the Department of Defense and VA have not been able to construct or agree upon an electronic health records system capable of transitioning data from DoD to VA health systems. This failure will have cost taxpayers an astronomical $12 billion by the time in-house development is supposed to be completed—whenever that may be. This kind of waste is simply unacceptable for our men and women who have served in uniform.
In July 2015, DoD announced Cerner, Leidos and Accenture would transition DoD to an off-the-shelf, commercial electronic health records (EHR) system after a competitive bidding process. On June 5, 2017, VA Secretary Shulkin announced that VA would adopt the same EHR system as DoD, now known as MHS GENESIS, which consists of core pieces of Cerner Millennium. While I applaud the Secretary for taking a critical step to ensure servicemembers will be able to seamlessly transition out of the military and into VA care, this decision will require careful oversight to ensure a successful transition and to be mindful of taxpayer resources. As Chairman, I will continue to oversee this process to ensure veterans and taxpayers are protected from start to finish of this transition.
My office is available to help veterans if they are having problems with the VA. Veterans can contact the VA directly to take advantage of the following benefits:
-Compensation and Pension
-Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment