At stops in Harrisburg, Mt. Vernon, Effingham and Mattoon today (February 17, 2016), Congressman John Shimkus (R, Illinois-15) recounted efforts in Congress to improve veterans’ access to care and make the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) more accountable.
“I always tell folks that I know veterans who swear by the VA and others who swear at the VA,” said Shimkus. “The reality is that no government-run health care system is going to be perfect, but those who served our country deserve the best care we can provide. That’s why today I wanted to highlight some of the things we’ve done recently in Congress to make the VA more accountable, and to expand access to care and job opportunities for our nation’s heroes.”
In the past year, the House of Representatives passed legislation to give the Secretary of the VA authority to fire any VA employee for poor performance or misconduct; to require records of reprimand be part of VA employees’ permanent records; and to allow the VA to recoup any bonuses paid to any VA employee. None of those bills passed the Senate, and one faces a veto threat from President Obama.
“The persistent problems at the VA won’t be solved by throwing more money at them,” said Shimkus. “In fact, while spending has been cut in many areas of the federal government, Congress has consistently increased funding to provide for the care of our veterans. The problem is a lack of accountability and an administration that is unwilling to put the care of our veterans ahead of the jobs of bureaucrats.”
One area of agreement, however, is on efforts to improve veterans’ access to care. The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act created the VA Choice program that allows veterans to receive care outside the VA system when the VA wait is too long or if they live too far away.
“The Choice program was popular and successful,” said Shimkus. “So we expanded the number of non-VA providers in the program, removed requirements that a veteran had to be in the VA system before August 2014 to participate, and allowed veterans who live within 40 miles of a VA clinic that doesn’t have a full time doctor to participate as well.”
Outside the VA, other legislation has sought to expand opportunities for veterans looking for jobs and housing.
“One of the first bills passed by the 114th Congress was my friend Rodney Davis’ Hire More Heroes Act,” said Shimkus. “That bill, now a law, expands veteran employment opportunities by allowing small businesses to hire veterans with VA health care or TRICARE, without counting them against the cap that would require their employers to provide redundant insurance under Obamacare.”
Also signed into law last year was legislation to require the Department of Homeland Security to recruit service members leaving the military to be Customs and Border Protection Officers, as well as legislation to address the veteran suicide epidemic through expanding mental health services to returning veterans. Legislation to reauthorize programs that help homeless veterans find jobs, housing, and referrals to mental health and substance abuse counseling was passed by the House but not considered in the Senate.