My Priorities for the 117th Congress
Today, I wanted to share the priorities that will guide the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs during the 117th Congress.
From finally getting Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans the benefits they’ve earned to passing the Veterans’ COMPACT Act and making real strides to reduce veteran suicide, I’m so proud of what we accomplished in the 116th Congress. But our work is not done. That’s why I am announcing our Committee’s top nine priorities for the 117th Congress. As we continue to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, our Committee will work to create a more welcoming VA and build equity for veterans, reduce veteran suicide, address toxic exposure, ensure student veterans receive quality education, advocate for women veterans, modernize VA, support VA’s long term care facilities, improve VA’s management and oversight, and ensure our legislative accomplishments are implemented effectively. Together, with Secretary McDonough and President Biden — someone who deeply understands the sacrifices service members, veterans, and their families make — we can build back better for our veterans and restore their faith in VA.
Here are our Committee priorities for this Congress:
Creating a Welcoming VA and Building Equity for Veterans: VA must recognize the extraordinary diversity of our veteran population — which includes more women, LGBTQ+, Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native veterans than ever before — and ensure all veterans know they have a place at VA and feel safe and welcomed walking through its doors. VA must also acknowledge the diversity and contributions of its workforce and address systemic discrimination in the workplace. To build a stronger, more welcoming, and more effective VA, we must begin the work to earn back the trust the institution has lost. We need to ensure that VA care and benefits are distributed fairly to all eligible veterans, regardless of social or physical disparities. We are committed to addressing inequities across VA including a focus on underserved veterans from tribal communities, homeless veterans, and deported veterans. No veteran should face barriers to care or benefits they’ve earned — that’s why we must look back to document how veterans were denied benefits, remediate that disparity, and ensure we equitably disburse future benefits to all who have served.
Suicide Prevention: In the 116th Congress, the Committee worked tirelessly to develop and advance two bipartisan, bicameral packages to prevent veteran suicide. These bills were incredibly strong first steps, but as long as 17 veterans die by suicide each day, our work must continue. This Congress, we’ll continue fighting for expanded lethal means counseling to all veterans so Veterans Benefit Administration staff, contractors, community care network providers, and caregivers can provide life saving information to our veterans. We’ll work to make sure community providers have a better understanding of military and veteran culture so they can provide the best treatment possible, and we’ll support efforts for increased outreach to our most at-risk veterans, including women, LGBTQ+, and Native veterans.
Toxic Exposure: We need to recognize toxic exposure as a cost of war. Passing the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act last Congress was a massive step to ensure those exposed to toxic substances during their service are cared for, but it took more than 40 years. The burden of proof shouldn’t be on our veterans, and there’s no reason that they and their survivors should have to fight VA for the care and benefits they earned. If America is willing to send our servicemembers into harm’s way to defend our democracy, then she must be willing to ensure we take care of all those who have borne the battle.
Ensuring Quality Education for Student Veterans: Before wrapping up last Congress, the Committee passed significant student veteran protections into law that will improve the quality of education offered to students nationwide, expand benefits for student veterans and their families, and give the State Approving Agencies responsible for approving courses the ability to crack down on poor performing schools. This Congress, our Committee will go further by guaranteeing a successful implementation of these protections, monitoring the quality of education for students temporarily using remote learning due to COVID-19, and ensuring unscrupulous institutions no longer can defraud student veterans of their hard earned benefits.
Supporting Women Veterans: There are currently more than 2 million servicewomen and women veterans. Thanks to the advocacy of the Women Veterans Task Force, the House passed the Deborah Sampson Act last Congress — the most comprehensive package for women veterans in over a decade, but there’s still more to do. All women deserve to feel safe while accessing high-quality VA care. We must eradicate sexual harassment and assault and other forms of unacceptable behavior at VA facilities. While the Committee is cautiously optimistic regarding changes currently underway at VA to address this issue, we will remain vigilant as the Deborah Sampson Act moves toward implementation.
Modernizing VA: VA has numerous large-scale modernization efforts underway that are critical to transforming how VA does business and serves the veteran community. While VA has made some progress in programs to modernize systems and has many efforts at various stages of implementation — including electronic health records, educational services claims and benefits systems, financial management, overall IT technical debt, and the medical supply chain — additional progress is needed in the next four years to successfully modernize VA.
Long-Term Care: The population of veterans who need long-term care is not only growing in size but is diverse in age bringing unique challenges. While VA has begun expanding its Program for Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) to family caregivers of veterans who served before 9/11, this will continue to be a major focus of oversight this Congress. We must ensure VA continues to innovate when it comes to non-institutional care options as this is not only good for taxpayers but reflects the preferences of veterans and their families. After the immediate crisis of COVID-l9 passes, there will need to be larger conversations about the role of State Veterans Homes, VA’s financial role in their construction, and VA’s limited oversight authority over these state facilities.
VA Management & Oversight: There are still several ongoing oversight efforts related to the activities of the prior Administration, including the response to COVID-19 and related spending. The Committee will maintain its focus on ensuring a strong, independent Office of the Inspector General that is empowered with the access and authority to conduct its work. We will continue our work to guarantee VA has a streamlined and effective process to recover debt that doesn’t harm veterans or their beneficiaries. Additionally, we will advocate for improved communication between VA leadership and organized labor while ensuring VA protects whistleblowers and fosters a culture free from retaliation.
Effective Legislative Implementation: During the 116th Congress, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs worked on more than 20 pieces of legislation that were signed by the president and became law. These included landmark bills to provide benefits to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, expand mental health treatment and resources to help reduce veteran suicide, safeguard student veterans’ benefits, and the most comprehensive package for women veterans in over a decade. In the 117th Congress, the Committee will ensure these legislative accomplishments are implemented efficiently and that VA works with Congress to deliver care and benefits to all of our nation’s veterans.