As Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), I have consistently worked to ensure that our veterans receive the benefits and treatment they deserve for their years of faithful service. These benefits are critical for veterans, retirees, and their dependents, as well as those who are considering a career in the military. It is Congress’ responsibility to provide access to quality benefits, assistance programs, and medical treatment upon separation from the Armed Forces.
Since news of deeply troubling Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) issues at the VA hospital in Phoenix, AZ broke in 2014, I have carefully followed the developments and ongoing national discussion about how care for our veterans must significantly improve and have engaged both constituents and organizations that work closely with veterans to hear their concerns. A number of issues remain at the VA, including at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System (VAPSHCS). I am in constant contact with leadership at VAPSHCS to ensure that the voices of veterans from the District I represent are heard. The questions, concerns, and feedback I receive from patients, volunteers, and others helps to make sure that continued improvements are made, and that the VAPSHCS is a valuable resource for our veterans in our community.
It’s essential to hear the experiences and opinions directly from those who have served. While doing my job in Washington, D.C., I participate in events such as National Veterans Roundtables, which are widely attended by representatives from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), National Military Family Association, as well as many others. Venues such as this provide a collaborative environment for policy makers to hear directly from national level veterans leaders about how we can best serve our veterans across the country. Additionally, I hold annual Veterans Advisory Council roundtables in locations around the Ninth District. The advice and knowledge of the roundtable participants keeps me updated about concerns regarding current government programs, federal legislative proposals, and issues that affect the veterans community in and around my district.
At the end of July 2014, the House and Senate reached an agreement on legislation to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs and address many of the problems that have been exposed. The Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014, which became public law in August 2014, provided $10 billion to pay for providing medical care to veterans through non-VA facilities and $5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals. In addition, the bill allowed veterans to seek medical care from alternative health-care providers if the VA cannot provide a service within 30 days of seeking an appointment, or if the veteran lives more than 40 miles away from a VA clinic. The Veterans’ Access to Care Act also gives the VA Secretary greater ability to fire or demote senior officials for poor job performance or misconduct. I voted in support of this bill because this is an important effort to provide veterans with the benefits and treatment they deserve.
While I believe in the intent and role that the VA Choice Program plays in the care of our veterans, I do not believe that the VA system should be fully privatized. It is absolutely clear that significant improvements need to continue to be made, including the further development and strengthening of the Choice Program. Care providers within hospitals such as VAPSHCS have unique insight into the health problems facing veterans, and we must encourage the continued hiring of the best physicians, nurses, and other specialists to assure the best care for those who have served.
I have supported increases in funding for the VA and will continue to do so. Robust support for the VA reflects not only Congress’ priority to care for our current veterans, but also the need to care for a new generation of veterans who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. I will continue to advocate for the critical services provided by the VA, while also ensuring that management is held accountable. It is essential that Congress to provide long term budget certainty for VA medical services, support, facilities, and research – ensuring that the wellbeing of veterans remains the top priority.
There is also an alarming trend of unemployment and homelessness among veterans. On average, unemployment rates among veterans are 5 to 10 percent higher than among civilians and include young veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am committed to decreasing the veteran unemployment rate and working to provide critical services such as housing, access to medical care, and career and employment training for those who have dedicated their lives to serving our country.
For this reason, I have been a strong advocate for legislation such as Senator Patty Murray’s Homeless Veterans Services Protection Act, federal legislation that would ensure access to critical services for homeless former service members. Many who have served in combat zones are impacted by post-traumatic stress – sometimes leading to them being discharged from the military without receiving the critical mental health and rehabilitative care that they so badly need. Additionally, I was extremely pleased to see that VA Subsidized Housing (VASH) project-based vouchers were awarded in Federal Way in November 2015. This program ensures that veterans in need are provided not only with a place to live, but with access to essential services as well.
I am a strong supporter of apprenticeship programs for veterans to learn new trades from skilled craftsmen. The Post 9/11 GI Bill, which I strongly supported, was the single largest improvement in helping veterans access higher education opportunities. The bill and subsequent improvements to the Post 9-11 GI Bill have undoubtedly assisted veterans. I have supported tax credits for businesses who hire veterans. I also co-sponsored the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, designed to help veterans transition successfully from the military to the civilian working world by taking advantage of the incredible training and experience they have already accrued during their service.
I have also supported the elimination of Concurrent Receipt and the SBP-DIC offset. Concurrent Receipt, or the "disabled veterans tax," requires that veterans' retirement pay be reduced by the amount they get in disability pay. The SBP-DIC offset, also known as the “widow’s tax”, requires that benefits received under the Survivor Benefits Plan (SBP) be offset by the amount of Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) received.
We should be doing everything possible to ensure that the brave men and women who serve our country come home to good, family-wage, quality job opportunities and receive the care and support they deserve.
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