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Veterans & Military

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.  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 2018

For fifty-six consecutive years, Congress has passed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which presidents of both parties have signed into law.  The annual NDAA process is among the most important means by which Congress contributes to the formulation of defense policy, weighs in on key strategic objectives and national security programs, and supports members of our Armed Forces.  It also sets a budgetary framework within which the appropriations processes for the Department of Defense (DOD) and related agencies takes place, reflecting the consensus priorities of Congress and the Administration for the Fiscal Year (FY). 

On May 23, 2017, President Trump submitted his first NDAA proposal to Congress.  It requests a total budget authority of $677.1 billion for national defense activities.  On June 7, 2017, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry introduced H.R. 2810, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018.  The final House version of NDAA was passed on July 14, 2017.  The Senate’s version of NDAA passed in that chamber on September 18, 2017.  On October 12, 2017, in my role as Speaker, I appointed a bipartisan group of 45 of my colleagues in the House to be members of the conference committee to work out differences between each chamber’s NDAA bill and produce a final conference report to pass and send to the President for his signature.  Following negotiations, the final conference committee version was filed on November 9, 2017 as H.R. 2810, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018.  The House passed this in bipartisan fashion on November 11, 2017 by a vote 356 to 70.  The Senate agreed to H.R. 2810 by a voice vote on November 18, 2017 (bill signing coming today).  President Trump signed the H.R. 2810 into law on December 12, 2017.   

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 missions.  Further, we must 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 2018 gives service members a well-deserved 2.4 percent pay raise—the largest in eight years.  The 2018 NDAA also authorizes increases to the size of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Army Guard and Reserve, Naval and Air Reserve, and Air Guard, so we can be absolutely prepared for any threat against our citizens at home and abroad.  The 2018 NDAA also maintains the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) compensation for married military couples with dependents to ensure that these families do not see their compensation reduced when parents are stationed in different locations.  The 2018 NDAA also maintained a grandfather clause to ensure that TRICARE fee changes for future members of the military in a previous NDAA would not apply for current working age retirees. 

Building on key achievements of the FY 2017 NDAA, the 2018 NDAA report also includes a comprehensive overhaul of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which seeks to and enhance and increase victims’ rights and protections.  This conference report contains numerous provisions aimed at reforming the DOD to improve financial management, accountability, and transparency.  It also reforms procurement, contracting, and acquisition processes to improve the way the Pentagon conducts its business while reducing bureaucracy, obsolete or duplicative positions and red tape.  It also continues reform efforts undertaken in recent years aimed at improving the military’s health care and retirement systems.  The 2018 NDAA would not authorize an additional Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round and would state that nothing in the bill would be construed to authorize an additional BRAC round. 

Should you be interested in learning more about the range of national defense issues addressed in the 2018 NDAA, you may do so by visiting my Defense and Homeland Security issue paper, which can be found here.

VA Health Care

In recent years, it has become abundantly clear that fundamental reform is needed to improve veterans’ access to quality care through the VA by partnering with private health care providers.  Myriad reports of VA facility mismanagement have shocked all Americans, but for many veterans, the abuse and incompetence revealed by their contents have been painfully familiar.  To be clear, many veterans are happy with the care provided to them through the VA, and the vast majority of VA employees are talented public servants committed to serving our nation’s veterans – many are veterans themselves.  That said, the challenge of reforming the VA must be approached with a crystal-clear moral understanding of what is at stake: we have no greater duty than to care for the brave men and women who have served in our Armed Forces.  

Congress has shown a renewed focus on reforming the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).  While legislative reform efforts have sought to address a wide variety of needs related to greater transparency and accountability from the VHA and the VA as a whole, the epicenter of reform of the VA system has been the enactment and ongoing implementation of the Veterans Choice Program.  Signed into law during the 113th Congress, the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014, was intended to improve access to care by expanding the availability of hospital care and medical services for eligible veterans at non-VA entities, expanding the VA's internal capacity to provide timely care to veterans, and providing real accountability for ineffectual employees.  However, as many of the serious problems at VA persisted, including improper budgeting and spending, long wait periods for appointments, a significant claims and appeals backlog, employee misconduct, and failed construction projects, it became clear that the critical task of modernizing the VA was far from over.

As you may recall, during the 114thCongress, both Chambers of Congress shared a focus on the continued need for oversight and evolution as the Choice Program continues to implemented and improved to meet veterans’ diverse health care needs.  The Construction Authorization and Choice Improvement Act, which was signed into law on May 22, 2015, clarified that the 40 miles eligibility criteria for the Choice Program is to be calculated based on the driving distance rather than the previous straight-line distance standard authorized VA to determine if there is are unusual or excessive burden in traveling to a VA medical facility in assessing eligibility.  On July 31, 2015, The Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act was signed into law.  This landmark legislation amended the August 1, 2014, enrollment date restriction and opened all enrolled veterans to be eligible for the Veterans Choice Program, clarified the definition of the nearest VA medical facility, and eliminated the 60-day limit on an episode of care.  It also expanded wait time eligibility criteria and provider eligibility. 

Tomah VA Medical Center

Scandals at VA facilities across the country and throughout the VA’s vast and unwieldy bureaucracy have rightly provoked shock, outrage, and mounting frustration with seemingly intractable incompetence and corruption of many VA managers.  Unfortunately, the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) has not been without its own set of serious failures and ongoing struggles.  Wisconsinites – myself included – continue to struggle to comprehend how the Tomah VAMC’s lethally inappropriate opioid prescribing practices that have come to light in recent years could have been allowed. 

While numerous assurances have been given and many hardworking public servants have been working hard to bring improvements to Tomah, credible signs of adequate accountability and sustained cultural transformation have been lacking.  Unfortunately, it remains clear that a troubling pattern exists in the VA, and Wisconsinites have watched with horror as one scandal after another is uncovered.  Last year, it came to light that a dentist at the Tomah VAMC engaged in a pattern of unsafe sanitation practices, including the use of his own equipment, which was not sanitized properly, in violation of standing VA protocol requiring the use of VA-provided disposable equipment.  This resulted in the potential exposure of nearly 600 veterans to HIV and hepatitis infections.  As I have said before, this scandal is not just heartbreaking; it’s outrageous.  While the Tomah VAMC has been and continues to be pursuing the steps to prevent repeating this type of scandal in the future, it will be critical for Congress to continue to conduct vigorous oversight.  All too often, the persons responsible for wrongdoing and their managers are not held accountable.  Adding insult it to injury, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is actually very often the whistleblowers, who see bad behavior and try to report it, that are punished.  This perverse pattern indicates that the problems within the VA – which are already difficult to believe – are possibly much worse than perceived. What is clear is that, until whistleblowers are able to report improper and illegal behavior without fear of retaliation or of losing their jobs, the cycle of scandals and complacency will not be broken.

To help break this cycle, Senator Ron Johnson introduced S. 585 – The Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017.  This bill would enhance existing whistleblower protections for federal employees, put in place new protections and require federal agencies to make employees more aware of the whistleblower protections afforded to them.  This bill would also create a new expedited process for investigations into instances in which employees are fired for whistleblowing and provide the Office of Special Counsel with greater access to information from federal agencies during such investigations.  Lastly, this bill would establish measures to hold VA employees who improperly access the medical records of their fellow VA employees accountable and require the GAO to provide two reports on retaliation against employees on probationary status and assess management and staffing levels of police officers at VA medical centers.  This bill is named for Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick, a 38-year old clinical psychologist at the Tomah VAMC who complained that a number of his patients were too drugged to treat properly.  He was given a written reprimand for criticizing medication practices.  When he later complained about the threatening behavior of a patient, he was fired.  Tragically, Dr. Fitzpatrick committed suicide shortly thereafter.  On October 26, 2017, President Trump signed this piece of legislation into law.   

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.

S. 114 – VA Choice and Quality Employment Act 2017

During the 115th Congress, oversight of the Choice Program has continued, and work is ongoing to build on the many early successes of the Choice Program, while addressing concerns that have arisen as this ambitious modernization process has been rolled out and incrementally expanded.  On August 12, 2017, President Trump signed S. 114, A Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017, which provided $2.1 billion to continue the Choice Program for six months while Congress works on other reforms to the Choice Program.  It also authorized 28 major VA medical facility leases and included significant enhancements for VA’s workforce recruitment, training, and retention efforts.  Since the passage of this critical extension, the House and Committee on Veterans Affairs have been hard at work in consultation with their Senate counterparts, VA leadership, and veterans’ advocates across the country, working to assemble a package of reforms and improvements that will allow for the long-term success of the Choice program.  

There are many important balances that still need to be struck if the Choice Program is to fulfill its potential.  While continuing to increase options and access to non-VA service providers will be critical, Congress must also ensure that non-VA providers are equipped with an understanding of how to meet the unique needs of veterans.  We also need to rationalize the billing process and make sure veterans are not being left to navigate a transitioning system on their own.  We must be sure to avoid allowing existing specialties, many of which were pioneered at the VA, to atrophy, and we must make sure that the Choice Program is being integrated into the broader VA health system in a way that is efficient, effective, and minimally disruptive.  As this process moves forward, the input and perspectives of Veteran Service Organizations will be crucial to ultimate success.

H.R. 2288 – Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017

This bill, which was signed into law on August 23, 2017, seeks to address the longstanding issues surrounding the VA disability benefit appeals process.  The average VA appeals process takes about six years.  This is not acceptable.  This law creates three “lanes” for veterans’ appeals.  Specifically, it provides for a Local Higher Level Review Lane, in which adjudicator reviews the same evidence considered by the original claims processor, a New Evidence Lane, in which a veteran will be able to submit new evidence for review and have a hearing, and a Board Lane, in which jurisdiction for the appeal would transfer immediately to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.  The bill gives the Secretary the authority to test the new system prior to full implementation and to ensure workability and avoid unintended further delays.  It would allow some veterans already going through the appeals process to opt into the new system.  It also requires VA to provide a comprehensive plan for how the new system will be implemented and a subsequent certification by the Secretary that the department is prepared to roll-out the reform.  The Secretary would have to submit periodic reports to Congress, including information on how many appeals are pending in both the newly reformed system and the legacy system. 

H.R. 3218 – Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017

This bill, which was signed into law on August 16, 2017, eliminates 15 year limit for Post-9/11 GI Bill for those leaving active duty after 2013 and increases GI Bill funding for Reservists, Guardsmen, dependents, spouses.  Reservists who had eligibility under the Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) and lost it due to the program’s sunset provision will have that service credited toward the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  This law also makes more veterans and their dependents eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program, which was created in 2008 and has already been used by 1.4 million people since its inception to help pay for college.  The law will also expand the program to surviving dependents of deceased service members, and also active-duty service members instead of just veterans.  If a child or dependent of a veteran dies, prior to using all of their educational benefits, those remaining benefits can now be transferred to another child or dependent of the same veteran.  Taken together, all of these reforms, which have been called the ‘Forever GI Bill,’ amount to those most significant GI bill expansion in years - a true victory for those currently serving in uniform, veterans, and the families whose futures they have served to protect. 

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 115th Congress to ensure that these goals are fully met.

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