Veterans’ issues: A welcome departure from DC gridlock

By U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud

mike michaud    It may seem like all Congress does these days is bicker and put off action on much-needed priorities. And while there is some truth in that, I’m happy to report that when it comes to examining the needs of our veterans there is a welcome departure from the partisanship.

    I’m honored to continue serving as the Ranking Member of the full House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the 113th Congress. While I’ve led various subcommittees in the past, being the top Democrat on the full Committee is an honor that I take very seriously.
    As the new Congress begins, I’m meeting with each of the national veterans’ organizations so that I can have an in-depth and frank conversation about where they see things and what veterans believe needs to change or be improved at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). I’ve also made it a priority to continue to work in a bipartisan way with Republicans on the Committee. Already, we’ve delved into a number of important issues.
    On January 23rd, I joined with Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) to introduce bipartisan legislation (H.R. 357) that would require schools eligible for GI Bill education benefits to give veterans in-state tuition rates even though they may not be residents of the states where the schools are located. Because of the nature of military service, veterans often have a difficult time establishing residency for purposes of obtaining in-state tuition rates. This bill will address this problem and ensure that veterans can access the affordable higher education options they have earned.
    On February 5th, the Committee held a hearing to review the multiple cases of Legionnaire’s Disease at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. The hearing examined VA’s efforts to prevent such an outbreak, outreach efforts, and what actions were taken after learning of contaminated water at the facility. A lot of information about this disturbing outbreak and its response was brought to light during this hearing. It’s clear that VA needs to diligently ensure that all its facilities are properly prepared, employees are trained, and that the prevention programs in place are effective.
    Later that day, the Committee examined issues related to the VA’s 100 percent temporary disability rating. What we found was that although the VA has instituted some safeguards to promote accuracy, human errors are still a problem. Whether it’s the claims backlog or reexaminations of disability ratings, veterans deserve to have an accurate and more efficient system in place that doesn’t burden or shortchange them. But the answer is not just to make sure software is updated or a particular database is functioning properly. We need to ensure that VA staff is adequately trained, retained, and held accountable to make certain that our veterans are receiving the benefits they deserve.
    In early February, we received disappointing news that the VA and the Department of Defense were backing off long-held plans to create a single computer system to integrate electronic medical records for service members and veterans. I view this as a huge and unacceptable setback. For years we have been told by both agencies that progress was being made and that things were on track. I joined with the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees to condemn this move. I’m find it hard to believe that our nation’s two largest government agencies — one of which is the world’s foremost developer of high-tech machines and cyber-systems — could not come together on something that would have been so beneficial to those that served. Our Committee has scheduled a hearing on this issue, and I’ll report back to you on what we find out about this reversal of policy.
    On February 13th, the Committee held a hearing on the mental health care services provided to veterans. The hearing examined a broad range of issues, including veteran suicide, providing timely access and quality care, and the progress VA has made in a variety of areas concerning mental health.
    The VA’s recent move to provide more accurate data on suicide rates among veterans is going to help us address this tragic problem. It’s clear, however, that the rates are too high and we can’t expect that doing more of the same will suffice. We must continue to reduce the stigma too often associated with seeking mental health care. Ensuring that at-risk service members are connected with the VA in a way that promotes continuity of care is essential. We should also further explore increasing the pool of providers and partnering with the public and private sector to expand access to effective mental health care.
    The next day, we held a hearing on increasing the functionality of VA claims processing for the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Veteran student advocate witnesses at the hearing testified that veterans continue to have concerns about delays and the ability to access information about their benefits.
    Moving forward, on these and other issues, we must think outside the box. Our nation has a responsibility to care for those who’ve sacrificed, and we can’t afford to have inaction inside the beltway impact this mission. Thankfully, the Committee is off to a good start this year, and I look forward to a productive session.

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