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All Americans owe a debt of gratitude to our country’s bravest individuals – those who have served and given their lives in defense of freedom and liberty. The passage of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, which included funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs and other veteran services and benefits, reiterated a Congressional commitment to provide for the needs of the nation’s veterans and their families. As a country, we must remember the sacrifices of our veterans and their families who have bravely served our nation, and I remain committed to providing the best care possible for them and uniformed service members.

National Defense Authorization Act of 2015

Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, former Chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, introduced H.R. 4435, the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2015, on April 9, 2014.  This bill passed the House with my support on May 22 by a bipartisan vote of 325 to 98.  The Senate version of the NDAA for FY2015 was approved on June 2 but was not considered by the full Senate.  To ensure that the legislation was passed by the end of the calendar year, portions of each version were merged for consideration by both chambers of Congress through a series of negotiations.

The agreement resulted in H.R. 3979, the fifty-third consecutive NDAA. This resolution authorizes and prioritizes funding for the Department of Defense and other select national security programs within the Department of Energy for FY 2015.  In compliance with the House budget, the NDAA authorizes more than $521 billion in spending for national defense.  Additionally, it authorizes $63.7 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations and $5.1 billion to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  On December 4, 2014, the negotiated version of the NDAA for FY2015 came before the House for a vote and was passed—with my support—by a bipartisan vote of 300 to 119.  The Senate passed the NDAA for FY2015 on December 12, 2014, and President Obama signed the agreement into law on December 19, 2014.

Congress must never forget its promises to our troops, our veterans at home, and the families of all who serve. Our troops overseas must be provided with the tools they need to successfully complete their mission.  Further, we must also work to ensure our veterans and the families of all service members receive the care, and services they need in a timely, convenient, and efficient manner.  Keeping these concerns in mind, the NDAA for FY 2015 enables the President to use his authority to give the troops a 1 percent pay increase in 2015.  It rejects the Pentagon’s request for a 5 percent reduction in basic allowance for housing (BAH) and instead reduces it by 1 percent.  The congressionally-mandated Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission did not report back to Congress on TRICARE reform prior to the consideration of the NDAA for FY2015.  As a result, the agreement approved a $3 increase in select pharmacy co-pays rather than the $10-$15 increase suggested by the Pentagon. Additionally, the resolution includes bipartisan reforms to enhance the prevention of sexual assault, the prosecution of offenders, and support for victims.  It also preserves the religious freedom provisions for chaplains and servicemen to include beliefs and expression of beliefs.

Fiscal Year 2015 Consolidated Appropriations

With the Bipartisan Budget Agreement signed into law, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees introduced the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2015. The legislation combined the 11 individual spending bills that typically fund programs within the government with a continuing resolution to keep DHS operating at current levels until a separate spending measure is passed.  In compliance with the Bipartisan Budget Agreement, the bill provides $1.013 trillion for the operations of the federal government. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was provided with $159.1 billion in discretionary and mandatory funding.  The discretionary funding level was increased by $1.8 billion above the enacted FY2014 level to address the new costs related to the bipartisan veterans’ healthcare reform bill passed in the summer of 2014.  The funding agreement requires the expansion of medical facilities and staff and authorizes the VA’s inspector general to continue investigating the scandal over patient care that was brought to light last year. Veterans deserve the highest quality care for the service they provided to their country. In addition, the funding agreement contains $58.7 billion in advance FY2016 funding for the VA.

This appropriations bill also provides $6.6 billion for military construction projects. These funds will primarily be spent on large and small construction and rehabilitation projects on military bases at home.  Some of the projects include the maintenance of military family housing, safety improvements and infrastructure work at seven Department of Defense education facilities, and the construction or alteration of Guard and Reserve facilities in 18 states.  The Consolidated Appropriations bill, H.R. 83, was passed in the House on December 11, 2014—with my support—by a vote of 219 to 206.  On December 13, 2014, it was passed by the Senate, and on December 16, 2014, President Obama signed the Consolidated Appropriations Bill into law.

The Fiscal Year 2016 House-Passed Budget Resolution

On March 23, the House approved – with my support – H.Con.Res. 27, the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Resolution. This plan encourages greater government efficiency and accountability while shifting the focus from Washington towards American families, businesses, innovators, and local communities. It will bring spending under control, bolster our national security, and balance the budget within ten years. Specifically, this budget will cut $5.5 trillion in spending, call for a fairer and simpler tax code, and put an end to the annual deficits that impair our economy.  This budget resolution would also fully repeal the President’s healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act, including all of its taxes, regulations, and mandates. It strengthens Medicare through necessary structural improvements, eliminates the “double dipping” of Disability Insurance and Unemployment Insurance, and helps to protect the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund.  Additionally, its language supports current oversight efforts of our nation’s VA medical centers to ensure that the resources provided to our veterans are sufficient.

To ensure that our military may confront the growing threats that the U.S. and our allies face, an amendment to the reported budget resolution increased authority for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) by $2 billion, from $94 billion to $96 billion in Fiscal Year 2016. The amendment also struck a deficit-neutral reserve fund for the OCO account, which requires offsets for the use of up to $20.5 billion in additional OCO funds above $73.5 billion.  Even with the increase in overall budget authority and resulting outlays, the resolution remains in balance through Fiscal Year 2024 and thereafter. I commend Chairman Price and his committee members on their work crafting such a responsible budget proposal.

H.R. 203 – Clay Hunt SAV Act

As Congress continues its work to improve medical care for our veterans, it is important that we also consider the mental ailments, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that often accompany military service.  Some of these illnesses do not have simple treatments and do not manifest immediately, so men and women in uniform must feel encouraged to seek the quality assistance they deserve in a timely manner.  H.R. 203, the Clay Hunt SAV Act, was introduced on January 7, 2015, as a critical step forward in the fight to end veteran suicide which currently claims roughly 8,000 lives a year. The bill would require an independent third party to conduct an annual evaluation of Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) suicide-prevention practices and programs and establish community-oriented peer support networks. The VA would publish a website to provide all information on mental health care services available to veterans and reservists. Additionally, it would create a three year pilot program to repay loans of students in psychiatry to recruit them to work at the VA.  I was proud to support H.R. 203 which passed the House on January 12, 2015, by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 403 to 0.  The legislation was subsequently passed by the Senate and sent to President Obama for his signature.

H.R. 357 – GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2014

The Post 9/11 G.I. Bill has helped ensure that veterans who have served since September 11, 2001, are able to attend public universities and further their education.  Since its enactment, Congress has passed legislation to update and improve these benefits for veterans.  H.R. 357, the G.I. Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2014, addresses issues that veterans have faced when trying to attend a public institution that may be outside of their legal state of residence.  Due to the variety of residence laws used by states, a veteran may have difficulty establishing residency in a new state upon returning home from service abroad.  Since the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill only covers tuition equal to the in-state rate of public institutions, many veterans who have not yet established residency in a new state have been left to cover the additional cost of the out-of-state rate with funds other than their G.I. benefits.  This bill, among other things, would require public institutions to give all veterans, who have been discharged within the last three years, in-state tuition rates as a pre-condition for receiving education benefits through the G.I. Bill.  In a true bipartisan effort, the House voted unanimously to pass H.R. 357 on February 3, 2014.  H.R. 357 was referred to the Senate but was not considered before the end of the 113th Congress.  I hope that similar efforts are undertaken with this legislation during the 114th Congress.

Tomah VA Medical Center

The Tomah VA Medical Center (VAMC) has recently attracted national attention for its narcotic overprescribing practices. Unfortunately, the allegations were proven true by a preliminary report produced by the VA’s team of investigators on March 10th. Although the number of veterans seeking care at the hospital declined, the number of opiate prescriptions at the Tomah VAMC quintupled from 2004 to 2012. A 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran of Stevens Point, Jason Simcakoski, even died of an overdose while staying in the inpatient psychiatric ward in August. This quality of opiate treatment is unacceptable, and retaliatory behavior among Tomah officials generated a culture of fear among the patients. Pharmacy staff who complained of unethical behavior risked dismissal from the hospital.  The problems surrounding the Tomah VAMC have caused people to lose trust in the leadership in the facility as well as in the VA Office of Inspector General. Veterans, their families, and Wisconsin taxpayers deserve answers.

On March 30th, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a joint hearing in Tomah with the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs to examine the gridlock and irresponsible medication practices at the Tomah VAMC. The committees heard from whistleblowers and families of veterans who received poor opiate treatment, Tomah VAMC representatives, and VA officials including the Assistant Inspector General for Healthcare Inspections.  Although the investigation is far from over, I was pleased that my colleagues and the witnesses had the opportunity to identify the weaknesses in the services provided to our veterans. We will continue our work here in Congress to improve transparency and accountability so that patients feel safe and can trust the care they receive in Tomah and at all VA clinics around the country.

Integrated Electronic Health Records (iEHR)

The Department of Defense (DOD) to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) operate two of the nation’s largest health care systems with over $100 billion in total annual costs. In an effort to streamline the transfer of health records from the DOD to the VA, the Deputy Secretaries of DOD and VA directed the development of an integrated Electronic Health Record (iEHR), which would provide both departments with the opportunity to reduce costs and improve interoperability and connectivity. However, in February of 2013, the DOD and VA announced that they would focus on interoperability using existing technological solutions rather than building a single integrated iEHR. 

Accordingly, the NDAA for FY2014, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, included a provision directing the Secretaries of the DOD and VA to modernize their electronic health records (EHRs) by December 31, 2016, and ensure that their respective EHR systems are able to share all records.  The bill also included language requiring the DOD and VA to report to Congress on the progress of these initiatives.  The Consolidated Appropriations for FY2015 provided $344 million to ensure that two departments have the necessary resources to continue their sharing of medical information.  Given the backlog of claims currently pending in Wisconsin, I will be sure to vigilantly monitor the continued implementation of the program and its effects on the veterans that have bravely earned their health benefits and are owed a seamless transition to civilian life.

Supporting our Veterans

The brave soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who have served our country have made tremendous sacrifices on behalf of our nation. While streamlining Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs budgets is critical to the fiscal wellbeing of our nation, Congress must not lose sight of the promises that it has made to our troops, our veterans at home, and the families of all those who serve. Our troops overseas must be provided with the tools they need to complete their mission and return to their families as quickly and as safely as possible. Further, we must also work to ensure that our veterans and their families receive the care and services they need in a timely, convenient and efficient manner. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the 114th Congress to ensure that these goals are fully met.

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