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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 Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, 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 2016

Representative Mac Thornberry introduced H.R. 1735, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016, on April 13, 2015.  Without changing the budget caps, this bill would authorize $515 billion in base discretionary spending for national defense and an additional $89.2 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) for a total of $604.2 billion.  The House and Senate passed their respective versions of the bill followed by negotiated language.  However, President Obama vetoed H.R. 1735 on October 22, 2015, because he objected to lifting the spending cap on defense without providing the same degree of relief for nondefense discretionary spending.

On November 2, 2015, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 became law.  This budget agreement raised the discretionary spending caps for both defense and nondefense programs and increased OCO funding for each of the next two fiscal years.  To meet the new appropriations levels for defense spending, the NDAA was modified to reduce the total authorized amount by five billion dollars.  The text of that revised NDAA was then passed as S. 1356 on November 5 with overwhelmingly bipartisan support by a vote of 370 – 58.  It was subsequently passed by the Senate and became the fifty-fourth consecutive NDAA on November 25.

To ensure that our military may confront the growing threats that the U.S. and our allies face, this resolution authorizes and prioritizes funding for the Department of Defense and other select national security programs within the Department of Energy for FY 2016.  In compliance with the budget agreement, the NDAA authorizes $607 billion defense funding for FY 2016, including $59 billion in OCO.  It also provides $610 billion for FY 2017, including an additional $59 billion in OCO.  This authorization includes reforms to the acquisition system to help improve accountability, simplify the chain of command, and streamline the bureaucracy.  The NDAA provides a new retirement plan for 83 percent of service members, many of whom were previously ineligible, through a Thrift Savings Plan. The bill directs resources to key priorities, including the A-10 warplane, modernization of the Army National Guard, the Israeli Cooperative Missile Defense, and lethal defensive assistance to Ukraine.  To prevent tragedies such as the ones that occurred in recent years at the Washington Navy Yard, Fort Hood, and the Chattanooga Recruitment Center, the bill contains an amendment that ensures that members of the Armed Forces may carry firearms at military installations, reserve centers, and recruiting centers.  Lastly, the NDAA continues the prohibition on transferred Guantanamo Bay detainees from Cuba to the U.S. and limits transfers to foreign countries.

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 2016 enables the President to use his authority to give the troops a 1.3 percent pay increase in 2016.  It rejects more than 60 percent of the president’s proposed increases to TRICARE Pharmacy co-pays and instead includes modest adjustments to co-pays for brand name and generic medications, at the minimum amount necessary to offset the retirement program.   The NDAA preserves Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) for dual-military couples and covers 95 percent of estimated housing expenses, a one percent annual reduction for four years, to help preserve tax-free BAH benefit in the long-term.  Further, the resolution includes bipartisan reforms to enhance the prevention of sexual assault, the prosecution of offenders, and support for victims. 

On November 5, 2015, the negotiated version of the NDAA for FY 2016 came before the House for a vote and was passed—with my support—by a bipartisan vote of 370 to 58.  The Senate passed the NDAA on November 10, 2015, and President Obama signed the agreement into law on November 25, 2015.

Fiscal Year 2016 Consolidated Appropriations

Each year, Congress must pass a budget agreement to set overall spending levels.  The budget resolution is used as a framework to guide the 12 individual appropriations bills that must be passed annually in order to fund the federal government.  As you may know, Congress passed H.R. 1314, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which was then signed into law by the president on November 2, 2015.  This bill made adjustments to previously agreed upon caps and set the top line spending levels for the federal government for FY 2016. 

With the Bipartisan Budget Agreement of 2015 signed into law, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees worked to draft an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal government, and on December 15, 2015, H.R. 2029, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY 2016, was introduced.  The bill combines the 12 separate appropriations bills into a single bill and provides funding for the whole government through September 30, 2016.  This $1.1 trillion appropriations bill is the product of a process that I have long criticized, a process that is too closed and driven by crisis and brinksmanship instead of by collaboration and big ideas.  That said, as speaker, I had a duty to take ownership of the process that I inherited and, in doing so, I worked hard with my colleagues to make the best of the situation in order to produce a bill that will allow the House to return to regular order.

The bill provides $79.9 billion in base discretionary spending for Military Construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs in FY 2016, a 9.8 percent increase from FY 2015.  To ensure that our veterans receive the benefits that they deserve, H.R. 2029 appropriated funding for mental health care, suicide prevention, traumatic brain injury, ending homelessness, and rural health.  These funds included $1.5 billion for Hepatitis C treatment and $605 million for stipends for the caregivers of post-9/11 disabled veterans.  The bill places a focus on speeding up VA claims processing, reducing the claims backlog, and modernizing the VA electronic health record system.  Construction funds will be spent primarily on construction and rehabilitation projects on military bases at home, including 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 30 states.

The consolidated appropriations bill, H.R. 2029, was passed in the House on December 18, 2015—with my support—by a vote of 316 to 113.  Later that same day, it was passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Obama.

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 became law.

Tomah VA Medical Center

The Tomah VA Medical Center (VAMC) 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 10, 2015.  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 treatment is unacceptable, and retaliatory behavior among Tomah officials generated a culture of fear among the patients and staff. 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.

The VA needs the ability to identify bad actors within the healthcare system, such as the professionals who participated in the corrupt prescription practices at the Tomah VAMC. On April 28, 2015, Representative Sean Duffy introduced H.R. 2046, the Prescription Drug Accountability Act, which would ensure that the state, the VA, and private physicians all have access to the same prescription information for veterans.  Accessing this information is crucial before physicians fill any opiate prescriptions.  I was happy to cosponsor this legislation.  Additionally, Representative Ron Kind introduced H.R. 1938, the Inspector General Transparency Act of 2015, on April 22, 2015.  This bill would require all Office of Inspector General reports that make recommendations as a result of investigations or audits to be sent directly to the agency or congressional committee of jurisdiction for review and to be published to the OIG website.  I am also a cosponsor of this bill.

We will continue our work here in Congress to improve transparency and accountability so that patients remain safe and can trust the care they will receive in Tomah and at all VA clinics around the country.  Our veterans deserve nothing less.

H.R. 1994 – VA Accountability Act of 2015

Since the passage of the Veterans Choice Act last summer, Congress has continued to uncover many instances of mismanagement or misconduct by VA employees.  These instances include the manipulation of disability claims data, construction failures at VA medical centers, and budget shortfalls.  It is evident that the VA often does not hold individuals accountable for their actions, and the process to take disciplinary action against an employee is too complex and lengthy.  To help ensure proper management and oversight at the VA, Representative Jeff Miller introduced H.R. 1994, the VA Accountability Act of 2015.  This bill would provide the Secretary of the VA increased flexibility in removing poor performing VA employees, provide improved protections for whistleblowers including restricting bonus awards for supervisors who retaliate against whistleblowers, and strengthen accountability and performance measures for Senior Executive Service employees.  I was happy to support this bill when it passed the House on July 29, 2015.  H.R. 1994 is pending in the Senate, and I encourage its swift passage to provide the VA with greater flexibility when evaluating performance.

Integrated Electronic Health Records (iEHR)

The Department of Defense (DOD) and 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 FY 2016 provides $233 million to ensure that the two departments have the necessary resources to continue their sharing of medical information, but access to the funds is contingent upon the VA’s ability to demonstrate that progress has been made on interoperability. 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 back 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 well-being 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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