Reflections on the past, and a look forward at the future

Published 8:27 am Monday, November 26, 2018

As we reflect upon Veterans Day and on the 100th Anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, our nation is reminded about the importance of showing gratitude to those who served to protect our freedoms. As a U.S. Army veteran, I have no higher commitment than taking care of our active duty military, their families and our veterans. Every servicemember deserves to be honored because we are forever indebted to them for their sacrifices to defend our nation. When I was selected by my colleagues to chair the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs two years ago, I knew we had monumental challenges and a lot of work to do to improve care for these heroes. I am very proud of what our committee has accomplished during the 115th Congress.
This Congress, the House has passed over 80 veterans’ related bills and over two dozen have been signed into law by President Trump. One of the most vital pieces of legislation passed this Congress was the VA MISSION Act. I was very proud to see this bill, which I worked on for two years, signed into law on June 6, 2018. This bipartisan piece of legislation puts into place comprehensive reforms that streamline the duplicative community care and Choice programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) into one cohesive program that improves access and quality of care, creates a non-partisan process for reviewing VA’s assets to ensure veterans can access the care they have earned, and expands VA’s Caregiver Program to veterans of all eras. This bill also strengthens VA’s internal capacity to provide timely, quality care to veteran patients within VA medical facilities by improving and expanding VA’s ability to train, recruit and retain the very best providers.
Over the past several years, VA’s civil service rules hindered the department from firing an employee in a timely fashion for poor performance or misconduct. The previous rules resulted in a tiring and complex removal process that could take more than a year, or was often dismissed entirely. To change this process, Congress passed the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act which was signed into law on June 23, 2017. This bill provided the VA Secretary increased flexibility to remove, demote or suspend any VA employee. It also provides protection for whistleblowers who have helped uncover and address ongoing issues within the department. The overwhelming majority of VA employees are good, hard-working people; the bad actions of a few have tainted the good name of many. This law was necessary to give accountability to the VA, and it is already having positive impacts on the department.
One of the achievements I’m most proud of in the 115th Congress was getting the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act signed into law in August 16, 2017. Also known as the “Forever GI Bill”, this legislation expands access to GI Bill benefits for our veterans by making more veterans eligible to receive benefits and removes the time restrictions, so troops can have the benefits for life instead of the current 15-year time limit. It increases GI Bill funding for reservists, guardsmen, dependents and Gold Star families; extends additional benefits to Purple Heart recipients; provides additional benefits to servicemembers and veterans in STEM degrees; and provides GI benefits back to veterans whose schools close on them during the semester.
Another significant reform was the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, which was signed into law on August 23, 2017. This bill modernizes the disability claims appeals system and assists almost half a million veterans and their families. The appeals reform legislation created three “lanes” for veterans’ appeals, the goal of which is to get veterans appeals adjudicated in a timelier manner. These lanes allow veterans to choose the option that works best for their individual situation, including an expedited review. Additionally, as a part of the appeals reform process, VA will update its IT systems, issue implementing regulations, create forms, train employees, and allocate staff appropriately to ensure that both new appeals and those that have been pending longest are all decided timely and fairly.
While I’m proud of our accomplishments, all of these bills will just be pieces of paper without proper implementation. That’s why our committee stayed active this week, holding three subcommittee oversight hearings. For instance, there have been some hiccups in Forever GI Bill implementation. We discovered significant GI Bill payment delays for many veterans, which is of great concern to me. That is why we have held multiple oversight hearings — including one this week — on the implementation of this legislation, so that these issues are swiftly resolved. I will work tirelessly to ensure our student veterans receive the full and correct benefits they have rightfully earned. Every member on this committee has the same goal — to give veterans the care and support they have earned and deserve. We will continue to implement the MISSION Act; make sure the Forever GI Bill is working for students; and ensure our disability appeals reforms are implemented effectively and working as intended. I look forward to continuing our work on reforming VA for the better.

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