Dems aim to balance oversight, bipartisanship on VA committee

Dems aim to balance oversight, bipartisanship on VA committee
© Greg Nash

House Democrats are planning to step up oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) next year with their new majority, probing topics from underperforming health centers and steps toward privatization to reports of “shadow rulers” at the VA.

Democrats say that while they want to maintain the bipartisan nature of the 24-member House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, they also need to hold the Trump administration accountable if there are abuses.

Chief among those potential abuses are revelations from a ProPublica report published in August that found three members of President TrumpDonald John TrumpMilitary personnel to handle coronavirus patients at facilities in NYC, New Orleans and Dallas Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has total of 20 patients: report Fauci says that all states should have stay-at-home orders MORE’s private Mar-a-Lago resort — Bruce Moskowitz, Ike Perlmutter and Marc Sherman — are exerting hidden influence over decisionmaking at the VA by “reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions.”

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Congressional Democrats requested communications between the trio of club members and VA officials, but VA Secretary Robert WilkieRobert Leon WilkieVA must improve access to high-quality care for transgender veterans VA secretary confirms first veteran death due to coronavirus Hillicon Valley: Harris presses Facebook over census misinformation | Austin cancels SXSW over coronavirus fears | Surveillance deal elusive as deadline nears | FTC sends warnings to Cardi B, other influencers MORE refused to provide them, citing ongoing litigation.

Rep. Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoRep. Mark Takano endorses Sanders The Hill's 12:30 Report: Super Tuesday fallout Democrats 'frustrated' by administration's coronavirus response after closed-door briefing MORE (D-Calif.), who is “very confident” that he will replace Rep. Phil RoeDavid (Phil) Phillip RoeAs VA's budget continues to Increase, greater oversight is required US to evacuate Americans from cruise ship in Japan Overnight Health Care: Appeals court strikes down Medicaid work requirements | Pelosi's staff huddles with aides on surprise billing | Senate Dems pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit MORE (R-Tenn.) as chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he wants documents and answers but does not want to get completely sidetracked over the matter.

“I don’t want to be bogged down in political tussles,” Takano said, adding that whether there are hearings and further investigation depends on how cooperative Wilkie is. “That’s all going to be in Secretary Wilkie’s court.”

Takano said he would “rather focus” on issues like underperforming VA medical centers and ensuring the veterans health-care system has enough capacity.

Rep. Julia BrownleyJulia Andrews BrownleyHouse Democrats eyeing much broader Phase 3 stimulus Assistant House Speaker self-quarantines out of 'abundance of caution' Actor Orlando Bloom to self-quarantine MORE (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the panel’s Health Subcommittee and Takano’s main competition for the committee chairman post, said in a statement that filling the estimated 46,000 vacancies at the VA is a priority, as well as ensuring adequate funding for the system.

That’s a goal shared by Takano.

“I fully intend as chairman to see that this secretary does not slow walk the filling of these vacancies, that we fill them as expeditiously as possible,” he said.

Democrats are also watching for any administration moves toward privatization of veterans’ care, particularly following implementation of the VA Choice Act, which made it easier for veterans to get care outside of the VA system.

Rep. Scott PetersScott H. PetersIssa advances in bid to fill Hunter's vacant House seat Biden rolls out over a dozen congressional endorsements after latest primary wins The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by Facebook — Washington, Wall Street on edge about coronavirus MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said that paying for veterans to get care at private health-care providers outside the VA system “might be OK as a temporary fix,” but “that shouldn’t be in lieu of fixing the VA.”

The suicide rate among veterans is another urgent problem that lawmakers are looking at. A VA report in September found that there have been more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year between 2008 and 2016 and that the suicide rate among veterans is 1.5 times as high as among nonveterans.

“To prevent Veteran suicide, we must help reduce Veterans’ risk for suicide before they reach a crisis point and support those Veterans who are in crisis,” the agency said in its report. “This requires the expansion of treatment and prevention services and a continued focus on innovative crisis intervention services.”

Peters, for example, touted the idea of peer support, helping connect veterans to other groups that can support them and help work through mental health problems.

One issue that has remained bipartisan on the committee, even though it sometimes provokes controversy, is research into medical cannabis.

In May, the committee advanced a bipartisan bill that would authorize the VA to conduct research into whether medical cannabis could treat post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain in veterans as an alternative to opioids, which pose serious addiction dangers.

Rep. Lou CorreaJose (Lou) Luis CorreaActivists, analysts demand Congress consider immigrants in coronavirus package Hillicon Valley: HHS hit by cyberattack amid coronavirus outbreak | Senators urge FCC to shore up internet access for students | Sanders ramps up Facebook ad spending | Dems ask DHS to delay Real ID deadline House Dems ask DHS to delay Real ID deadline MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the committee and sponsor of the bill, said he hopes the measure will get a vote on the House floor next year, when the chamber is under Democratic control.

“It is my hope and it is my expectation that that bill does come up for a vote now,” he said.

The bill’s most prominent committee supporter on the other side of the aisle is Roe, the current chairman.

“I’ve heard from many veterans, both with physical and invisible wounds, who believe medical cannabis could benefit them,” Roe said in a statement when the legislation was introduced earlier this year. “This is why I support the department researching cannabis just like any other drug to see if this alternative therapy would truly benefit patients.”

Democrats say they’re planning to maintain that bipartisan nature once they are in the majority.

“Chairman Roe is rightfully proud of how productive this committee has been and that only came about because of the bipartisan culture of the committee,” said Takano.

Correa echoed that sentiment, saying, “If you want to look at an island, I think, of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, it’s the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.”