Veterans

Former Army doctor plans a health care focus for House Veterans' Affairs Committee

Rep. Phil Roe has been a licensed physician for the last 46 years, so it comes as little surprise that health care issues will be among his top priorities when he takes over the House Veterans' Affairs Committee next year.

"You have got to put patients and doctors, veterans and doctors back in charge of the [department's] health care system," the 71-year-old Tennessee Republican said in an interview with Military Times.

"Not bureaucrats deciding everywhere you go and everything you do. You've got to let patients decide what is best for them. That may be staying inside the VA system. Or it may be having your private doctor outside the system. But the veteran can decide that."

Roe, an Army medical corps veteran entering his fifth term in Congress, will become House Republicans' top voice on VA reform efforts next month, replacing retiring committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

In that role, he'll be at the forefront of efforts to expand veterans' medical choices in the wake of VA's 2014 medical wait times scandal, a problem that administrators and lawmakers have fought over for the last two years.

The debate has invoked criticism that conservatives are looking to tear apart the existing veterans health care system and slowly hand over those responsibilities (and funding) to private sector practices.

But Roe insists his goal is finding the proper balance between choice for patients and a robust medical safety net for veterans.

He trained at VA facilities early in his career, and said he sees partnerships with outside medical centers as a logical step in providing more care to veterans without dismantling VA infrastructure.

"If you read through the Commission on Care report, one of their primary recommendations was setting up a primary care network for veterans," he said, referring to a congressional advisory board's recent findings. "So if that veteran lives 10 miles or 50 miles or 100 miles from a VA [hospital], you could see a … certified primary care doctor instead."

Like other Republicans in the House, he’s leery of major new VA builds after multiple construction projects have come in over budget and behind schedule. He has been pleased with smaller VA clinic builds and leases in under-served areas.

Almost immediately, he’ll be charged with evaluating the future of the contentious VA Choice Card program, which allows some veterans to seek outside care at the department’s expense. It’s scheduled to run out of funding in 2017.

Senators including John McCain, R-Ariz., have pushed to refund the program and make it permanent, even as they complain that VA leaders have stalled and mismanaged the program.

Roe said he supports the Choice initiative but wants his first steps as chairman to compile a guide plan for the future of VA, drawing input from fellow lawmakers and outside groups. He expects to conduct that work in the first three months of the new Congress, and use the findings as a framework for appropriate legislation.

He’s also recruiting newly elected veterans and physicians to join the committee next session, hoping they can bring additional perspective to the work.

"We need to be looking at what health care is going to be looking at in five, 10, 15 years," he said. "We’ve been where we’ve been, and we can’t keep doing things the same. There’s not a bottomless pit of money. We have to spend resources more wisely."

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com .

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