The Hill: We must ensure veterans receive the best health care, education possible

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Washington, November 14, 2019 | comments

The following opinion article appeared in the November 14 edition of The Hill.

When service members return home from war, their hardest battle should be behind, not in front, of them.

I am a veteran myself. As a member of Congress, my office works with veterans to help them navigate the bureaucracy at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). And as a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I understand the frustration that stems from a system that, although improving, remains flawed.

Rather than complain about it, here are four policy solutions that if passed by Congress can improve veterans care right now.

While only about 7 percent of Americans have served in our military, veterans account for 11 percent of all suicides in the United States. Twenty veterans commit suicide every day. This is a reality that is unacceptable in a country founded on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I am helping lead the effort in Congress to address this crisis by improving the method by which the comptroller general of the United States assesses the responsibilities, workload and vacancy rates of VA suicide prevention coordinators, who are at the forefront of this epidemic. Additionally, I am an original co-sponsor of the IMPROVE Act to expand the reach of the VA’s suicide prevention programs. As the brave and caring men and women who identify high-risk veterans, and ensure they are receiving the attention necessary, the VA must be better equipped to care for veterans in their greatest time of need.

To address the growing frustration with the VA, I introduced a bill to increase oversight reforms of the department. I commend the VA’s considerable progress made within the last year, particularly its partnership with Apple. Now veterans have access to their health records on their iPhone. These are steps in the right direction. However, while I applaud the Trump administration’s request to Congress to increase the annual budget of the VA next year by 9.5 percent for fiscal 2020, there remains a tremendous amount of work to reform the VA, as many veterans are still not receiving the care they have earned. Our veterans deserve “Cadillac, first-class” care, but I disagree with some of my colleagues’ assessments that they get it now.

In addition to the need for good health care, veterans often face roadblocks when they go to school. Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect in 2009, the VA has paid roughly $40 billion in tuition and benefits to around 1.2 million veterans, service members and their families. Let me say that these are remarkable numbers for which the department deserves praise. But this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Last year, the VA paid out an extra $4.5 million in duplicate benefits because officials were late reading email alerts to update payments, a watchdog found. Such neglect puts the burden on reimbursing those overpayments on veterans rather than the institutions involved. This is grossly irresponsible, and Congress must act to fix this. Just last month, I introduced a bipartisan bill to change how GI Bill overpayments are reimbursed by making schools, not student veterans, responsible for reimbursing the VA for GI Bill overpayments. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have sacrificed mightily, and they deserve robust education opportunities unimpeded by unnecessary financial hardship or bureaucratic red tape.

There has been no greater force for peace and justice in the world than the United States armed forces, whose existence and success is owed entirely to the brave men and women who comprise it and have served in the nation’s wars. The American people believe that. Let’s show our veterans that Washington, D.C., believes that too by ensuring veterans receive the best health care and education possible.

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