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House Veterans committee chairman takes oversight on the road

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., addresses about 100 attendees at a town hall meeting Monday, Nov. 20, 2017 at the John L. McClellan Veterans Hospital in Little Rock, Ark.

NIKKI WENTLING/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 21, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The last stop for Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe before heading home for Thanksgiving was Little Rock, where the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs promised quick action on legislation increasing veterans’ private-sector health care options.

Despite concerns about cost, privatization and the influence of outside parties -- such as the conservative Koch political network -- Roe said Monday that the committee has come to a consensus on the Veterans Choice program and will likely advance legislation after the weeklong holiday break.

“We’ve got a bill coming up that I’ve been working on about a year. I’ve got every Democrat and Republican on the committee agreed to it,” along with veterans service organizations, Roe said, without offering other details. “We want the veteran to be able to make a choice, not the bureaucracy. We want to put the strength and decision-making back where it ought to be, which is with the veteran.”

Overhauling the Choice program and setting new rules about when and where vets can get care outside the Department of Veterans Affairs is the most important test for the busy committee. It has met 53 times since it was formed in January, and it has completed some of its heftiest legislative goals. Bills have been sent to President Donald Trump that improve GI Bill benefits, make it easier to discipline VA workers and modernize the VA benefits appeals process.

In addition to their meetings in Washington, members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs have conducted 23 visits between January and September -- some to investigate accusations of wrongdoing and others, like Roe’s visit to Arkansas, to get ideas about what they should be working on in Washington. Roe, 72, has been part of about a dozen of those visits, including a three-state trip that began Friday in Spokane, Wash., and ended Monday in Arkansas.

It’s a mandate Roe set for himself when he was selected as chairman in December.

“When I got this job, I said I wanted to travel around. I know what my own VA looks like and all, but I wanted to go to others,” Roe said. “I’ve been to both Democrat and Republican districts, and I’ll continue to do that as long as I’m chairman.”

Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., invited Roe to Little Rock to a meeting of his Veterans Advisory Council at the John L. McClellan Veterans Hospital. About 100 veterans, advocates and VA health care providers attended the town-hall meeting, where veterans submitted questions to Roe, Hill and local VA officials.

Veterans in Little Rock asked about some of the biggest issues facing the VA, from prescription painkiller practices to rural health care.

They heard from veteran Mike Ross about challenges getting VA benefits for Gulf War illness; and from Vera Santiago, the wife of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who wanted to see more help for homeless veterans.

Vietnam War-era veteran Alfredo Davila voiced his frustrations about the VA restricting painkillers but not providing acceptable alternatives. The VA began more strictly limiting access to opioid prescriptions for chronic pain management in an effort to curb addiction and overdose. Last year, the agency reported it has cut the number of VA patients on opioids by 25 percent since 2012.

“They treat me as though I’m an addict instead of a patient,” Davila said. “What am I to do if they take my medicine away? What are we to do? We’re out here suffering with a lot of pain.”

Dr. Margie Scott, director of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, responded that veterans weaned off opioids could access physical therapy, chiropractic care, acupuncture and other alternatives in central Arkansas.

“There is no single answer or single modality; it will be different for each veteran. It’s not an easy problem to solve,” she said. “But we have a charge to have safe medicine and ensure we aren’t giving out narcotics.”

David Williams, veterans service coordinator at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Ark., asked the VA for more outreach to student veterans at Arkansas colleges. Williams helps about 600 students each semester, he said, but not all colleges hire someone to work with student vets.

Roe was able to offer answers to Arkansas State Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, who asked for Congress to push the VA to expand its use of telemedicine. The committee Roe leads created a bill to do that, and it passed the House earlier this month. It would create an exemption for VA doctors to treat patients across state lines, allowing them to reach more veterans in rural areas who lack access to VA facilities. The Senate must approve the bill before it can be signed into law, and Roe said he was optimistic that it would.

Roe said he’d add at least one specific issue raised Monday to the list of things he believes could be fixed by the committee back in Washington.

Don Berry, a retired Air Force colonel and member of the Military Officers Association of America, told the congressmen that recent pilot programs funded with grants from the VA Office of Rural Health were successful in Arkansas, but die off once the grants run out and no more funding is provided.

“You have a program that works and it’s going great and then the grant runs out,” Roe said. “We could find something that says, ‘This grant works, it’s scalable, can you take it nationwide?’ That’s certainly something I’ll take back.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Veterans with the Arkansas chapter of the American Legion attend the Veterans Advisory Council meeting hosted by Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017 at the John L. McLellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock.
NIKKI WENTLING/STARS AND STRIPES

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