Dems aim to balance oversight, bipartisanship on VA committee
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 Trump’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.”
Congressional Democrats requested communications between the trio of club members and VA officials, but VA Secretary Robert Wilkie refused to provide them, citing ongoing litigation.
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who is “very confident” that he will replace Rep. Phil Roe (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 Brownley (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 Peters (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 Correa (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.”