WASHINGTON — House lawmakers advanced plans to increase veterans’ access to private-sector doctors, expand caregiver stipends to more former military families and increase medical marijuana research for veterans care in a flurry of votes before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Together, the moves represent a major step forward on multiple controversial veterans issues on Capitol Hill even as the Department of Veterans Affairs faces an uncertain future with its leadership.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin was fired by President Donald Trump via Twitter in March. Four weeks later, Trump’s pick to replace him, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, withdrew his nomination amid controversy over his professional conduct.
Although expressing concerns about what those moves mean for larger VA planning, lawmakers said they cannot afford to wait for those leadership issues to settle before acting on a host of legislative reforms. Tuesday’s mark-up sets the stage for a robust legislative package of VA measures to possibly pass through Congress and become law by Memorial Day.
The most controversial of the measures was the VA MISSION Act, a community care overhaul plan that has been among the committee’s and White House’s top priorities for the last 15 months. It passed the committee by a 20-2 vote, with the opposition coming the top two Democrats on the panel.
But the omnibus veterans policy measure is expected to see strong Democratic support in the Senate if it passes out of the full House in coming weeks. More than three-dozen veterans groups endorsed the measure, and Trump a day earlier said he supports the idea.
It includes plans to consolidate seven different community care programs into a single new veterans health care plan, one that would allow more private-sector access for veterans at the federal government’s expense.
It would also keep VA administrators as the central care coordinator for veteran patients and add $5.2 billion in new funding for the VA Choice program, which is set to run out of funding by the end of the month. That program would be phased out over the next year as the other consolidation work progresses.
Republican lawmakers added to the measure a plan to expand caregiver stipends to older generations and launch a multi-year review of VA facilities, with an eye toward shutting down locations in a style similar to the military base closing rounds.
Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said he was disappointed the measure did not receive unanimous approval, given support for the individual aspects of the bill. Six Democratic amendments were dismissed before the vote, all of which Roe said would have jeopardized the long-term prospects of the measure.
But committee’s ranking member Reps. Tim Walz., D-Minn., and Mark Takano, D-Calif., said they had concerns about the scope of the asset review and last-minute moves by the White House on the deal.
In addition to that bill, the committee also passed an array of other measures that could be voted by both chambers before the summer:
** Medical marijuana: Under another bill that received unanimous support from the committee, Congress would clarify VA’s ability to research medical cannabis as an alternative treatment for a host of veterans’ injuries and require regular reports on that work.
VA officials have said in recent years that federal rules regarding medical marijuana research have limited their ability to examine the drug. Lawmakers are hopeful the new measure will silence those concerns and provide definitive data on whether the drug can be helpful to suffering veterans.
** “Blue Water” Navy veterans: The committee unanimously approved a bill to expand benefits to about 90,000 veterans who served aboard ships off the coast of Vietnam during that war, but have not been able to conclusively prove exposure to Agent Orange during their time in the ranks.
To pay for the $1.1 billion cost over 10 years, the measure would add a new fee of about $35 a year to VA home loans.
** Women veterans: Committee members also unanimously backed legislation to provide more oversight into VA’s programs for women veterans, including annual reports on outreach and shortfalls in sex-specific medical care.
The work would also include a closer examination of community care options for women veterans, and whether those private-sector services are providing better or worse treatment for those patients.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.