Senate, House VA committee staffers brief Legion on variety of issues

Senate, House VA committee staffers brief Legion on variety of issues

Members of The American Legion’s Legislation Commission were provided an overview of legislation of importance to both the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs by those working the legislation on an almost daily basis – staff from each committee.

During a panel that included staff from both the majority and minority from both committees, topics included the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health records modernization, education benefits, expanded access to community care, VA staffing and the need for the committees to hear directly from veterans. The discussion took place Feb. 26 during the Legion’s Washington Conference in the nation’s capital.

Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (SVAC) Majority Counsel Billy Van Saun said that one area of concern to Committee Chairman Jon Tester is veterans getting the care they need in rural states like Montana.

“Obviously being from a rural state, veterans’ access to clinics, transportation for rural veterans to get to the VA is something we are continuing to work on,” Van Saun said. “For the last couple years, we’ve tried a couple options, and it’s not an easy solution, but we’re going to continue to find a way to get veterans to the care that they need at the (locations) they want to.”

A member of the American Legion Department of New York, Van Saun said Legionnaires building relationships with members of Congress and their staff is an important piece in delivering legislation that benefits veterans.

“Every time I go home to Northern New York I stop in (to my Legion post). My wife is from Seattle, and every time I go to Seattle, I stop in the local Legion post there to talk to the guys that are hanging out in the post and listen to them. I would love to have those conversations come to the Hill. I love to hear about how people are getting to VA, their experience at the VA, their issues with applying for benefits or using accredited agents or attorneys. Those are the relationships that I’d like to see of more on the Hill. Those conversations about the personal experiences they’re having with VA.”

Hunter Thompson, a Minority staffer with the SVAC, talked about the American Legion-supported Veterans’ Health Empowerment, Access, Leadership, and Transparency for our Heroes (HEALTH) Act, which was co-introduced by SVAC Ranking Member Jerry Moran. The legislation aims to protect and expand access to care for veterans, safeguard veterans’ ability to choose their own providers and require VA to improve the quality of care veterans receive.

“We want to ensure that the community care program works for veterans and allows them to get the care they need in their communities, specifically as it pertains to residential rehabilitation services,” Thompson said. “We often see veterans that have to travel far too many miles, hours of travel, to receive the care that they need.

“On top of that, having VA look at a value-based care model, something that is both precision and very patient-focused. Focused on the outcomes, not just the inputs. Looking at ways for VA to incentivize providers, especially in the mental health-care space, yielding good outcomes that are very particular and veteran-focused.”

Thompson said oversight is an important area this year. “Over the past few years, VA has made a number of great strides in bringing on last year over 60,000 new employers into the system,” he said. “This year, they’ve positioned themselves as saying, ‘OK, we’re ready with a full-staffed workforce to fulfill the mission of VA’.  

“However, oftentimes we go to facilities across the country, and they tell us, ‘We still need more employees in order to provide that access and care that veterans deserve. So, through this year, we want to see what VA’s going to be able to do, in their words, to be more efficient and have more patients coming through the VA system. But how are they going to do that if we still hear that there are shortages in the workforce across the system?”

Thompson added that his committee often hears from organizations like the Legion from the national level. “However, I always find that a lot of the issues we end up really hyper-focusing on are when we hear from the local folks,” he said. “There’s so many issues that are happening at the local level that never make their way up to us, unless they’re brought to us.

“So, I think that the biggest things are, obviously, being sharp on what are the legislative needs and what are the fixes. But be able to show here’s the impact it’s having in the community with these veterans.”

Katy Flynn, Majority General Counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC), urged the meeting’s attendees to reach out to their members of Congress on critical issues because, “it’s how we learn what the needs are on the ground. It’s really vital for you all to continue that advocacy and to get to know your Congresspeople, because they come to us with everything you reach out to them with.”

Flynn touched on a few issues and pieces of legislation the committee is monitoring, include sexual harassment claims at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA); VA accountability and the VA home loan program; access to care at both VA facilities and through community providers, including mental health care and substance abuse rehabilitation; and improved education benefits – including the VET–TEC Authorization Act of 2023, which permanently funds the Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses program for veterans seeking job training in high-tech industries. The legislation has passed in the House.

“The pilot program was a huge success, with an 84-percent graduation rate and an average starting salary of over $66,000,” said Flynn. “We feel really good about that program.”

Ally Cimino, HVAC Minority Staff Director, Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee and Deputy General Counsel, said one of Ranking Member Rep. Mark Takano’s biggest priorities for this session of Congress is The Elizabeth Dole Home Care Act, which will allow veterans to age at home if they choose while giving their caregivers the support they need to honor the veterans’ wishes.

She also spent some time talking about veteran homelessness, which she called, “the amalgamation of every part of the system that’s not working. Whether a veteran can’t access their GI Bill benefits. Whether they can’t access health care. Whether they can’t access mental health treatment. Substance use treatment. All of these things add up and cause someone to potentially experience housing insecurity. And in the worst case, homelessness.”

Cimino said she is hoping for passage of the Housing Our Military Veterans Effectively (HOME) Act, which she said, “gives VA some of the flexibility they need to meet veterans exactly where they are and get them housed.”  

During the panel Cimino asked John Harry, the HVAC Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Technology Modernization, to give his insights on VA’s Electronic Health Record Modernization (EHRM), which was paused in September 2023 after reports of veteran harm and deaths in Spokane, Wash., and elsewhere. It carries a price tag of $16 billion. “We’re still in a place where success is possible,” Harry said. “VA about six months ago appointed new leadership for this program, and they’re by far the most competent and qualified leadership we’ve seen in the program in the last five years.

“Success is still possible. It’s a big bureaucracy. It takes a long time to turn the ship. I think they’re going to get there.”

Harry said VA’s current records system, VistA, was built by VA for VA and by doctors for doctors. “So, it’s a system that they love,” he said. “The problem is it’s a 40-year-old system. Cybersecurity was not a big thing back then, so it’s not something they can manage now. They way it was built, it’s basically sort of duct-taped together, and every VA has a different version of VistA, so they don’t communicate well with each other. And they really don’t communicate well with the rest of health care.

“We are still determined that a modern EHR is the right solution, whether it’s the one that they’ve contracted with or a different one. Where we’re at is just trying to help VA get themselves together so that they can be as successful as possible.”

Also during the commission meeting, the National Legislative Council presented its Member of the Year Award to California Legionnaire Manny Vega. A member of American Legion Post 731 in San Diego, Vega participated in all 23 of the Legion’s 2023 advocacy campaigns while reporting 15 members with his members of Congress.

“That is what success is about,” National Legislative Council Chairman Rick Oertel said. “Doing that job. Making sure you have that rapport. Making sure you’re making those meetings. And when you get that legislative alert, you’re responding to those immediately.”

Alaska was named the council’s Department of the Year for having the highest percentage of activists connected with Congress in the Legion.