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What Congress’ first 100 days meant for veterans

No matter the organization or interest, benchmarks are used as a way to measure the success or failure of an agenda. Since the 114th Congress just passed its first 100 days, its agenda as it relates to veterans and veteran issues should be examined.

One of the first pieces of legislation Congress and the Veteran Affairs Committees wrote and passed was the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act. Building on the momentum created in the 113th Congress, both the House and Senate passed SAV and the president signed it into law close to within Congress’s first 30 days. This bipartisan effort proved that Congress and the president can find common ground on an important veterans issue. The SAV Act seeks to address and prevent the troubling fact that 22 veterans a day take their own life. Congress and the president showed the American people what is possible when they work together for veterans.

In the same manner of bipartisanship, on March 19, 2015, the 12th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, Reps. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) launched the bipartisan Congressional Post-9-11 Veterans Caucus in the U.S. House as a congressional member organization purposed to support the veteran community.

Open to the more than 30 House members who currently serve or have served since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the caucus seeks to identify issues impacting veterans of this era and work across the aisle to develop and debate legislation aimed at improving the lives of post-9/11 veterans and their families.

One piece of bipartisan legislation that aimed to improve the lives of post-9/11 veterans and their families was The Choice Act of 2014. The Choice Act, which provides veterans increased access to quality healthcare, was greatly hampered in its effectiveness by the “40-mile rule” (a criteria standard by which veterans seeking private healthcare would have to conform). The Choice Act and the 40-mile rule were slated to be addressed by this Congress in the first 100 days; however, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) was able to beat Congress to the punch and address the ineffectiveness of the 40-mile rule determination without a legislative fix.

It is no secret that the continued backlog of veterans’ claims, the careless overspending at the Denver VA Clinic, relocation spending and countless other self-inflicted wounds still hamper the VA from being efficient. While it is wholly correct for congressional committees who have jurisdiction over the VA to hold hearings and to investigate these and other missteps, they should also make sure that they continue to advance legislation that helps veterans and provides the secretary of the VA, Bob McDonald, the flexibility to correct course as necessary.

One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know about the huge problems facing the VA. Our nation’s veterans and taxpayers deserve better. Yet Congress must resist the urge to concentrate too heavily on these well-known problems and must have continued motivation during the next 100 days to pass legislation that veterans groups like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) advocate as ways to help veterans who need solutions in the immediate. These immediate issue recommendations include:

Adopting the treating physician rule for medical evaluations for compensation and pensions, requiring the VA to treat private medical opinions with the same weight as an opinion of a VA medical specialist when determining disability rating or eligibility.

Improving follow-up care with veterans that call the Veterans Crisis Line to ensure they are connected to mental health treatment or other services and ensuring proper oversight and implementation of the Clay Hunt SAV Act.

Increasing support for Vet Centers and VA medical facilities to hire more female practitioners, doctors who specialize in women’s health, mental health providers and outreach specialists.

These three recommendations are specifically designed to address the three issues most widely raised among our members: needed reforms to the VA disability claims process; mental health support and modern and adequate healthcare services for women veterans.

The issues facing the VA and veterans deserve continued emphasis. The problems and recommended solutions are well-known and documented. Congress must not lose the momentum it has created during its first 100 days, and it must be equally resolute in its determination during the next 100 days to fulfill the obligation of meeting the needs of those who served our nation.

This piece was originally published in The Hill.

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