Statement of Paul Rieckhoff, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, before the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees:
Chairman Isakson, Chairman Miller, Ranking Members Blumenthal and Brown, and Distinguished Members of the Committee:
On behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and our 450,000 members, thank you for the opportunity to share our policy priorities for 2016. According to the Congressional calendar, from today until the election, Congress will only be in session 62 days. Given this abbreviated schedule, I would like to focus our priorities that Defend the Promise by: Continuing to Combat Suicide, Improving Services for Women Veterans, VA Accountability, and Defending the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
After twelve years, IAVA has become the preferred empowerment organization best able to meet the needs of post-9/11 veterans. Much like VSOs who have previously had their own panel on which to testify before this Joint Committee, I ask that going forward, IAVA be afforded the same opportunity.
Keep Fighting to Reduce Veteran Suicide
As you all know, this time last year we were celebrating the enactment of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. Despite this historic and bipartisan success, suicide among veterans is still a crisis. IAVA’s latest member survey shows that while more IAVA members are seeking help for mental health injuries, there are also a higher percentage who have thought about taking their life.
To that end, Chairman Miller, you have indicated a willingness to hold a hearing on implementation of the Clay Hunt SAV Act. I hope to learn today when you will hold that hearing and Defend the Promise to our veterans suffering from mental health issues. As you may know the VA recently announced its intention to elevate and adequately resource its Suicide Prevention Office. Currently, this office only has two dedicated staff members at VA Central Office and no directly allocated funds. This is counter to the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, which sits higher within the Department of Defense and has a dedicated staff and a budget.
While IAVA applauds this development, we ask that your committees work with appropriators to adequately fund and staff the office. Currently, the office has no dedicated line item and only two dedicated personnel.
IAVA is also very concerned women veterans die by suicide at nearly six times the rate of civilian women, and we call on Congress to pass the Female Suicide Prevention Act, recently approved unanimously by the House.
Swords to Plowshares estimates that over 125,000 post-9/11 veterans have received an other than honorable discharge, leaving this population without access to VA service and benefits. These veterans are at higher risk for suicide and homelessness – they need our help. IAVA supports the Fairness for Veterans Act (H.R. 1694) to ensure proper due process for service members whose condition should have been diagnosed and considered prior to their discharge from the military.
Invest in the Success of Women Veterans
Women veterans make up over 20 percent of IAVA membership and over 30 percent of our leadership. They are also the fastest growing segment of the veteran population. Yet the vast majority don’t feel the American public recognizes their service and sacrifice. Less than 10 percent of IAVA women veterans who responded to our member survey felt that the general public understands the contribution of women in the military. As a nation, we must be better.
Women veterans continue to have higher rates of unemployment, and in IAVA’s own member survey, women were more likely than men to have difficulty finding stable housing.
We must raise public awareness and Defend the Promise to women veterans by strengthening research, improving gender-specific care and improving employment, housing and childcare services.
More can and must be done for our women veterans to ensure they have the right medical professionals and facilities available to provide for the unique care they so often are lacking. In fact, sixty percent of women veterans responding to IAVA’s member survey reported that experiencing a time at the VA where they felt uncomfortable seeking care.
Currently, dedicated funds for women’s health care is not a line-item in the VA budget, (let me repeat). In order to fully support women veterans, the VA budget should include a sub-line item under Primary Care that allocates 10 percent of the budget to women veterans care, which would help to fund the critical Designated Women’s Health Providers and their support staff. This should be coupled with 15 percent of the Mental Health budget to have a sub-line item for women veterans. Ensuring VA leadership’s support for women veterans is critical, and it needs to include adequate budgetary support.
Reform the VA and DOD for Today’s Veterans
After the VA scandal in 2014, veteran problems finally became abundantly clear to the entire nation. There is an opportunity now to finally reform a broken system and to give the VA Secretary the tools, resources, authority and space to succeed—while of course being held accountable.
While a vast majority of VA employees serve veterans in an exemplary way, there are also those who discredit the VA through underperforming or negligent acts. Being able to jettison those employees in an expedited manner that also protects the whistleblower is key to restoring VA morale and providing the veteran with the highest quality and most timely care possible.
We support Secretary McDonald’s recent endorsement of Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson’s idea to amend Title 38 making the Department’s executives at-will employees, and providing the Secretary the needed tools to meet the salary requirements to match private-sector compensation of health care personnel. Additionally, we were an early supporter of Chairman Miller’s House-passed VA Accountability Act (H.R.1994) to make it easier for the VA Secretary to purge VA employees deemed to be bad actors.
IAVA calls on Congress to bridge the partisan divide and work now to pass a strong accountability bill that can be passed by the Senate and signed into law. We are encouraged by Chairman Isakson’s recent comments that he would like to move a VA accountability bill by the end of March and are very much anticipating the final product of negotiations.
The VA, with Congress’ support, must also eliminate the appeals backlog. IAVA looks forward to working with Congress to aggressively attack this challenge in the same way we did the claims backlog. Congress was essential to that fight, and your continued support will be needed to solve this problem.
Like you, Chairmen, I too feel that Secretary McDonald is the right man to reform the VA. He brings a business acumen that results in honest budget requests, IT modernization, accountability, and under his tenure, the VA has improved.
However, more needs to be done, including:
● Improve the veterans experience
● Modernize VA contact centers, including the Veterans Crisis Line
● Increase access to health care and improve community care
● Continue to reduce veteran homelessness
We all knew this would be a long road, and I ask you to give him the funding and flexibility to continue the work he has started.
Defend Veteran and Military Education Benefits
Since 2009, over one million veterans and their families have come to rely upon the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Among IAVA’s own members, 50 percent of member survey respondents have used the Post-9/11 GI Bill themselves or transferred it to their dependents.
Ignoring these facts, the House’s recent use of the GI Bill as a piggy bank to fund other veterans programs is of great concern to IAVA. While there are initiatives in the omnibus legislation that we have supported, a 50 percent reduction in the housing allowance for veterans’ children who will receive transferred GI Bill benefits is a breach in trust. Congress must Defend the Promise.
IAVA encourages your committees to find alternative funding sources. If not, we will continue to oppose the bill.
Finally, Congress must close the 90/10 loophole that reward for-profit colleges who intentionally that intentionally target veterans. While not every school is a bad actor, and closing the 90/10 loophole is not the only solution, it is a significant step Congress should take to improve education outcomes for veterans.
Chairman Miller, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your years of service as Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and to our nation. You embody the term, “public servant” your leadership will be missed by the nation’s 23 million veterans.
I’d like to leave you with this thought. Veterans are not a charity, we are an investment and should be empowered. Given the challenges of legislating in an election year, Congress must stay focused on continuing that investment.
Thank you again for the opportunity to share IAVA’s priorities with you here today. We look forward to working with each of you in the critical months ahead and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.