Members of The American Legion Family descended on Capitol Hill Feb. 26 to meet with their respective members of Congress and share their concerns and the Legion position on key veterans’ issues.
But one day earlier, the four leaders of the congressional committees tasked with oversight of veterans’ health care, benefits and other areas came to the Legion’s Washington Conference for an hour-long session that touched on several of those issues that will be discussed in the halls of Congress.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chairman; Sen. Jon Tester, Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs’ Ranking Member; Rep. Mark Takano, House Committee on Veterans Affairs’ chairman; and Rep. Dr. Phil Roe, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member, all participated in a Fireside Chat in front of hundreds of Legionnaires at the Washington Hilton. The chat, which was streamed online and moderated by Military Times reporter Leo Shane, covered areas such as the future of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), veteran suicides, Blue Water Navy veterans and women veterans.
The following are highlights of the bipartisan chat.
The direction the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is headed
Sen. Isakson: “There can be no excuses. We have done everything we can possibly do, in my judgement, to address the major things (The American Legion and other veterans service organizations) brought to us. Whether it’s expediting the disability claims process. Whether it’s accountability so people can actually be fired if they don’t do the job and replaced with somebody who can do the job. Whistleblower provisions. Everything you need to get an organization accountable to the people it serves. And we are committed to doing that.”
Sen. Tester: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think (VA Secretary Robert) Wilkie has the skills to be able to run the VA in a very, very positive way. We’ve given the tools they need to be successful, and we (have) the oversight to make sure the VA is living up to needs of our veterans around this country. That being said, oversight … is going to be critically important because we had a very successful last Congress from a VA perspective, from a veteran’s perspective, because we were able to pass bills that had been sitting around for a while, and new ones too.”
Rep. Takano: "I am concerned about the implementation of the Mission Act. I am concerned about the way the new access standards for care in the community are being established. We still don’t have a permanent Under Secretary for Health. That’s a very critical post that does need to be filled. So, I’m worried about just how these access standards are going to be finally vetted. I have concerns over the rate in which suicide-prevention funds have been spent, or actually not spent, in the previous fiscal year."
Rep. Roe: “When I came to the (HVAC) in 2009, we were spending on all veterans benefits about $97 billion. That number was north of $200 billion this year. So the country stepped up, and we need to make sure we’re spending this money wisely. Quite frankly, the VA has done a great job in some places and a not-so-great job in other places."
Privatization of the VA
Sen. Isakson: “We’re not privatizing the VA. Period. We’re going to make sure that the VA doctors and the Choice doctors understand that a veteran deserves the first chance (at) good care. We’re going to make sure that the standards are equal and the access is equal. We ain’t privatizing nothing. However, if we find a private-sector doctor … who doesn’t do a good job, we’re going to … not use him anymore. And if a (VA) doctor doesn’t do a good job, we now have the Accountability Act to get rid of him.”
Sen. Tester: “None of the four of us on this stage want to privatize the VA. When we talk about access standards, we need to go back and ask, ‘Why are we even here?’ We’re here because veterans couldn’t get their health care in a timely manner. These access standards, it is so imperative that we get them right.”
Rep. Roe: “What I’m most interested in is you getting timely quality care. I don’t care where it is. If the VA can provide that care, that’s great. The quality of care you get is what I am most interested in. You getting the care you need in a timely way. That’s not privatization. That’s quality care.”
Reducing suicides in the veteran population
Rep. Isakson: "On the suicide issue … it is not exactly what a lot of us think it is. In many cases it is somebody reacting to the hand dealt to them in life. Which in some cases could not be the fault of access to a counselor, but the fault of somebody who treated them for a disease and didn’t do a very good job of it. They’re suffering from that disease. We had a lot of guys that came home from Vietnam that would not have come home from any other war … because our medicine improved. But because of that a lot more of them have needs that are much greater than the average veteran who survived. We’ve got to make sure that all of our medical services to those vets are good so they don’t get into a case where they’re frustrated.”
Sen. Tester: “We’ve got to continue to work to try to find what we can do to stop this horrible thing from happening. There is still a stigma around mental health and suicide we have to figure out how to break. I think the (veterans service organizations) can help with that area a lot. This is the 21st century. We know a lot more about the mind than we did in the ‘50s, the ‘60s and ‘70s. I can tell you unequivocally that people that get help can have mental health conditions fixed just like you fix a broken arm or a dislocated knee. We have to work as a group, as a society, to try to reduce the stigma as we try to take money and put it into areas that do the most good.”
Rep. Takano: “Next week we’re intending to have a roundtable on veteran suicide. I want my committee members on a bipartisan basis to deepen their understanding of the complexities of addressing veteran suicides. We know the majority of veterans committing suicide are not connected to the VA. We definitely need organizations like The American Legion to help us come up with strategies to reach those veterans who are not connected to the VA.”
Rep. Roe: “We were spending $8 billion a year and haven’t moved the needle a bit on the suicide rate in this country. We need to be doing something different.”
Recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Court decision allowing for benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans
Sen. Isakson: “I think the VA ought not appeal the decision. That would make everything as simple as possible.”
Sen. Tester: “The Vietnam Blue Water veterans issue is an important issue, and I hope the VA does not challenge that court decision. I hope it just goes through and we take care of the folks who fought off the shores of Vietnam. There’s something folks in Congress need to understand: Veterans health care is a cost of war. If we’re not willing to pay that, we need to stop sending our men & women into war.”
Rep. Takano: “We do have to make some adjustments (to legislation) in light of the court decision. I’m hoping that the (VA) secretary is not going to appeal the decision. But I think to be doubly sure, Congress needs to get a bill passed and signed into law expeditiously, regardless of where this may end up in the 90-day appeals period.”
Rep. Roe: “We need to do this right, pass this bill and sign it into law. So many men and women at the end of (the Vietnam War) were treated poorly, and it’s time to do the right thing and get it done.”
Issues facing women veterans
Sen. Tester: “The VA’s made progress, but they haven’t made enough. The military has changed over the last 50 years. The facilities have to be brought up to snuff, the doctors have to be brought up to snuff; they’re not just treating guys any more. The fact is there’s different issues out there. (The VA needs) to make it a priority because women are a huge part of our military now.”
Rep. Takano: “Thirty percent of women veterans screen positive for military sexual assault. If that’s true, that is a very, very disturbing number. And we believe it has some connection to the fact women don’t access their benefits as much as their male counterparts. Some VA medical centers have responded by establishing separate entrances to separate women’s clinics. I’m pleased to announce that with my leadership we’ve established a women veterans task force that will be led by Congressman Julia Brownley. She’s going to be tasked with the known barriers to women accessing their benefits. We want to be able to overcome those barriers, and we want to bring to the surface the barriers we don’t know.”
Supporting legislation allowing the last living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II to lay in in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol following his passing
Sen. Isakson: “I can’t see how anybody would vote against that. Absolutely they should have the honor.”
Sen. Tester: “If anybody should be allowed to lay in state, it’s a member of the ‘greatest generation’ that gave me the opportunity to be sitting on this stage today as a United States senator.”
Rep. Takano: “I wouldn’t be here if three of my great-uncles didn’t serve with the 442nd Infantry Battalion. And one of them didn’t come home. It would be fitting and proper for the last World War II (Medal of Honor recipient) to lay in state.”
Rep. Roe: “Absolutely.”