Dr. Boozman's Check-up

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT: S.1982

Top Line Points

  • There is a nearly two-year old Internet post that continues to circulate online that misrepresents why several senators voted against a particular piece of veterans-related legislation. The record needs to be set straight.
  • Although the bill, S.1982, may have been well intentioned, it would have placed unnecessary strains on an already overwhelmed VA system, leaving the VA shorthanded and unable to fully meet the needs of our veterans.
  • In addition, then-Majority Leader Reid also blocked efforts to improve the bill by denying senators the opportunity to offer amendments to strengthen the bill, including Senator Boozman’s amendment to secure advance appropriations for all VA mandatory and discretionary accounts.
  • The vote cast on S.1982 did not “kill the bill” as this Internet post contends. Rather, it sent the bill back to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs where it could be reconsidered and improved.
  • Congress opted instead to consider a better bill to enhance services for our veterans, the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (the CHOICE Act). This bill ultimately passed the Senate, with Senator Boozman’s support, and was signed into law [P.L. 113-146] by President Obama.

A Note from Senator Boozman

As a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I take very seriously my responsibility to advocate for those who have served our country in uniform. When it comes to providing for our servicemembers with the benefits and services they have earned, I believe we ought to make good on our nation's promise. Their commitment to country is without question. Our country's commitment to them should be the same.

I believe every one of my colleagues, Republican and Democrat, shares that commitment. This is why the Veterans’ Affairs Committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have traditionally been the most bipartisan committees in Congress. It is the same reason that I seek out a Democrat cosponsor to join me on each piece of veterans-related legislation I introduce.

However, that does not give us license to address veterans’ issues in an irresponsible manner. In fact, because we are seeking to help those who have sacrificed so greatly for our nation, there must be a greater obligation imparted on lawmakers to solve these issues in a timely, responsible manner.

Which bring us to a nearly two-year old Internet meme that continues to circulate online. This meme misrepresents why several of my colleagues and I voted against a particular piece of veterans-related legislation. The record needs to be set straight.

The post in question lists the names of senators who voted against moving forward S.1982, the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 authored by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

And as Internet memes so often do, this one leaves out vital information.

Although this legislation may have been well intentioned, it would have placed an unnecessary strain on an already overwhelmed VA system, leaving it shorthanded and unable to fully meet the needs of our veterans.

In addition, then-Majority Leader Reid had also shut down efforts for senators to offer amendments to strengthen the bill, including my amendment to secure advance appropriations for all VA mandatory and discretionary accounts.

The vote we cast on S.1982 did not “kill the bill” as this Internet post contends. Rather, it sent the bill back to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs where it could be reconsidered and improved.

Congress opted instead to consider a better bill to enhance services for our veterans, the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (the CHOICE Act). This bill ultimately passed the Senate, with my support, and was signed into law [P.L. 113-146] by President Obama.

Why S.1982 Failed: It was the Wrong Approach

While well-meaning, S.1982 was unfortunately an irresponsible approach to addressing these serious problems. That is the part of the story that a disingenuous Internet post on social media often fails to tell.

Instead of fixing the existing challenges our veterans face by fully implementing initiatives already in place, increasing accountability and improving efficiency, S.1982 would have added to the list problems by expanding programs and increasing the responsibility of VA beyond sustainability.

My greatest concern with this approach is that we would be expanding the role and responsibility of a department, that to-date, continues to struggle to manage its resources and provide the essential services our veterans have been promised.

As the sheer number of veterans and the complicated nature of their needs increases, we must not pile on additional responsibilities that overwhelm the agency when it cannot meet its existing demands. I believe VA is fully committed to meeting all of the demands that our veterans, and Congress, expect. However, this must be done in a responsible manner for the Department to be able to accomplish these goals.

Although S.1982 included worthwhile programs that I have supported and championed, we cannot expect a massive mandate imposed on VA to change the outcomes for the better. We need a thoughtful, measured approach to changes and institute them incrementally, with proper oversight, to make sure our veterans are receiving the attention they deserve in a timely manner.

My colleagues and I were not in opposition of the goals of S.1982. I don’t think anyone in the Senate opposes what S.1982 sought to achieve. The bill failed because it was the wrong approach to achieving those end goals. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

The Solution: The CHOICE Act

We all agree that we need to restore faith in the VA health system. Where we differ is the approach.

After the Senate rejected S.1982, we set out to find the right solution to address the needs of our veterans.  

This effort resulted in the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014 (the CHOICE Act), a bipartisan bill that provides veterans with a greater choice of care and also puts into place a system of accountability within the agency in response to the ongoing investigations into misconduct by VA employees.

It passed both chambers of Congress and was signed into law on August 7, 2014.

The CHOICE Act brings accountability to VA operations and creates disciplinary procedures for bad actors. It ensures that employees who abuse their power and put our veterans in danger are held accountable. As a result of this law, the VA Secretary now has the authority to fire or demote senior VA employees for poor performance.

I am committed to ensuring that VA uses every available option it has to deliver on its mission for all veterans who have earned this care. However, if VA cannot meet veterans’ needs, this law gives them the ability to seek that care elsewhere.

The CHOICE Act allows veterans who have been unable to obtain care from the VA to seek it from private providers. The option also would be provided to those who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, including a community-based outpatient clinic. The government would be obligated to reimburse the non-VA health provider for the services provided to the veteran.

Since the law’s passage, I’ve received a great deal of feedback from Arkansas veterans about the Veterans Choice Program it created. We have taken that feedback and worked to enhance the program. For instance, we were able to get VA to expand the eligibility criteria for the program by reflecting a more accurate measurement of distance between where a veteran lives and the nearest VA facility. This update allows additional veterans to meet the qualifications and participate in the program. I am pleased to see these much-needed improvements and will continue to work to make this program successful for veterans in Arkansas.

Conclusion

The CHOICE Act ushered in much needed reforms, but this is not to say that it solves every problem plaguing the VA. Much work remains in this important task of ensuring our veterans receive the benefits they have earned.

This work begins with rigorous Congressional oversight. My colleagues and I on the Senate VA Committee are committed to upholding this responsibility. We have held over a dozen oversight hearings last year alone.

It also requires us to work together to come up with effective legislative solutions to the problems our veterans encounter. I continue to work with my colleagues to introduce legislation that will increase and enhance the services provided to our veterans including the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program, the GI Bill Fairness Act and the Frontline Mental Health Provider Training Act.  

Bottom line: When we work together to achieve a shared goal, rather than promoting one partisan agenda over another, our nation’s veterans will receive the quality services and benefits they have earned.

Additional Resources

I called into KASU's morning show to visit with Mark Smith to discuss the challenges of battling ISIS, the highway bill, the COOL mandate and the last-minute legislative items the Senate is trying to work through before the holidays. If you missed it, you can listen to the entire interview here.

I started the day at the Fox 16 studios talking about the Veterans History Project and the work done by my office to capture and preserve the memories of our veterans. This is a project through the Library of Congress to collect and retain the oral histories of our nation’s veterans so that future generations can hear directly from them to better understand the realities of war. Find out more about the Veterans History Project here.

I am proud of the work my staff has done to help Arkansans who are having problems with federal agencies.

We’ve been able to make a real difference in the lives of Arkansans, helping thousands of people with a wide range of matters involving federal agencies.

From the IRS, Social Security, Medicare, VA, international adoption, visas and many other issues, we can help navigate the roadblocks with government agencies.

My goal is to provide access to the help Arkansans need. Mobile office events are a critical component to delivering that service.

This morning, I joined members of my staff at the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce for our 100th mobile office.

Since I began serving Arkansas in the U.S. Senate, my office has received more than 15,000 requests for assistance.

Here are some examples of issues my office has been able to resolve:

  • A widow whose husband had been approved for Social Security benefits but never received his back-pay.
  • A couple went to Florida to get on a cruise and realized they had lost their passports on the drive down.
  • A Korean War veteran who sought VA compensation for radiation exposure during his service in the Navy.
  • An Arkansan teaching in China had a stroke in the Beijing airport.  His family needed help to get him safely back to Arkansas

If you need assistance with a federal agency, here is more information on how we can help.

While we address the very important challenges we face as a nation, we cannot neglect what is perhaps our most important responsibility as public servants, helping our constituents.

I learned quickly during my tenure in the House of Representatives that if used properly, the power of the office truly can change lives for the better. When I was first elected to Congress as a member of the House in 2001, former Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, who represented the Third District of Arkansas for 26 years, gave me some excellent advice.  He said: “John, always remember, now that the election is over, there are no more Republicans, no more Democrats, only the people of Arkansas and you need to take care of them.”

That is just as true now as it was then.

No matter what major legislative crisis we are facing, our goal is to make each constituent who is having trouble with a federal agency a priority. In some cases, we are the last resort to overcoming a major obstacle and we work to give each and every case that comes before us our attention. While Arkansans are familiar with the role U.S. Senators play in creating laws in Washington and making sure the voice of our state is represented in the nation’s capital, the less recognizable work of constituent service is equally important.

My staff works diligently in seven field offices around the state to meet the needs of Arkansans, acting as a liaison to help navigate the often confusing federal agencies. We also make it more convenient for Arkansans to reach our office by taking it on the road and hosting Mobile Office events across the state.

I am proud of the work my staff and I are able to do to help Arkansans who have run into roadblocks with government agencies. I have a great team with years of experience navigating the complex bureaucracy and getting answers that Arkansans are waiting for. We’ve been able to help thousands of people facing a wide range of problems involving federal government agencies including the Veterans Administration, Social Security, Medicare, international adoption, visas and taxes.

While constituent service work often gets little attention, it makes a real difference in the lives of people across the state. Our door is always open and we’re ready to offer our assistance. I encourage you to reach out to our office if you face problems with the federal government.

Watch the video below to see how my staff and I have been able to help Arkansans. In highlighting these stories, I hope that if you have similar problems you’ll turn to my office for assistance. My staff and I are ready to help you.

If you need assistance with a federal agency, learn more about how we can help.

In case you missed our interview with Jonesboro’s KASU radio, you can listen to the interview here. I talked about the need to get federal spending under control, that’s why I voted against the Budget Act that was approved by the Senate. This week the Senate passed a resolution to block the EPA’s overreaching WOTUS rule. This rule extends beyond the authority of EPA and threatens farmers, ranchers and private landowners' ability to use their property. In addition, I highlighted a great way to honor our veterans on Veterans Day by preserving their memories as part of the Veterans History Project.

The scandal surrounding the systematic, widespread problems in the health care system of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) came to light well over a year ago, thanks in part to an investigation by VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Yet that very same office has been without its top leadership for almost two years now.

Without a permanent watchdog in place, it is difficult to make sure the necessary reforms are carried out. The lack of accountability makes it easier to sweep misconduct under the rug, which puts veterans at risk.

Late last week, President Obama nominated attorney Michael Missal to take over as VA’s Inspector General (IG). The White House said he was nominated for the post in part because of his “proven record of expertly leading prominent, sensitive, and extensive investigations.”

While I am pleased that the President has finally moved on this vacancy, the Senate must ensure he is the right person for the job. I will give Mr. Missal’s nomination a full review and should he pass the test, I fully intend to push my colleagues to move his nomination forward quickly.

It should not have, however, taken this long for the President to send a nomination for this position over to the Senate. 

IG’s are taxpayers’ first line of defense against waste, fraud and abuse in Washington. Along with VA, several departments and agencies have gone years without a permanent watchdog. This is inexcusable.

We need to restore the public’s faith in Washington. This begins with accountability. As a defender of taxpayer dollars, IG’s play an instrumental role. It is my hope that this nomination is the start of a trend to fill these vacancies.