New chairman outlines priorities for House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 12, 2017
WASHINGTON – Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., recently took over as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs only after making certain Donald Trump was interested in “more than paying lip-service to veterans,” he said.
“Talking to President-elect Trump’s team, getting to know them, it is important to him to make sure vets get the best care,” Roe said. “If they weren’t interested in doing that, then I wasn’t interested in the job. I feel like I got my back covered, and I can move forward.”
Roe has stepped into the role as chairman with a plan to tackle big challenges at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He said his priorities include expanding veterans’ options for care into the private market, modernizing the process veterans use to appeal disability claims and upgrading technology at the VA.
He also wants to take inventory of VA facilities and determine what can be divested and what facilities should look like in the next two decades.
“That’s what’s on our plate,” Roe said Thursday in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “This is going to be a very, very busy committee.”
In addition, Roe said he is continuing the efforts of his predecessor -- retired Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. -- to give the VA leadership more authority to discipline poor-performing employees. But he’s already hinted at a different approach from Miller’s.
As chairman, Miller became one of the VA’s toughest critics, and he and VA Secretary Bob McDonald often clashed. After the conclusion of the 114th Congress, McDonald admitted his relationship with the House committee was “not successful” and criticized the committee for drudging up issues from years past.
In contrast, Roe said he already has a rapport with David Shulkin, who Trump nominated Wednesday as VA secretary. Shulkin oversees the health care arm of the VA as undersecretary for health.
“We have an excellent working relationship,” Roe said.
Roe plans to sit down with Shulkin next week, ahead of Trump’s inauguration Jan. 20.
One of the biggest challenges facing the VA is how it manages private-sector care.
Roe wants to offer veterans the ability to choose their health care provider, but he’s trying to ease concerns that expanding into the private sector means privatizing the federal department.
Roe described a realignment of the VA into regional networks of care, with management of private-sector care at each region. The idea falls in line with recommendations made by McDonald, as well as the Commission on Care, a group appointed by President Barack Obama to advise the VA on reform efforts.
However, it’s unclear whether all veterans would be able to choose their provider under the plan or if they’d have to meet certain criteria. Roe said he would like to give the choice to all veterans regardless of their proximity to a VA facility, which is currently a factor in deciding which veterans can use an outside provider with the VA paying the bill.
“I want to put the veteran in charge of those choices. I do not want the bureaucracy in charge,” Roe said.
Veterans groups have recoiled at the idea of expanding too far into the private sector, out of concern it could erode VA resources. In fiscal 2016, approximately 30 percent of appointments made by VA patients were with non-VA providers.
Roe worked as an OB-GYN for 31 years. He said he wants to ensure veterans have continuity of care, as he provided patients at his private practice.
“I had a veteran the other day at a town hall [meeting] say he had four primary care doctors, including the VA,” Roe said. “At my home practice, I saw patients for 30 years. We got old together. That continuity of care is being lost.”
In an effort to buy time to establish the regional networks, Roe and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have proposed legislation that would eliminate an expiration date of August 2017 on the Veterans Choice Program. The program, intended to be temporary, allows veterans to receive health care from private doctors when they can’t get a timely appointment at a VA facility, or if they live more than 40 miles from one.
When Congress passed the Choice Act in 2014, they appropriated $10 billion for the program, which was to last three years. McCain said about $1 billion could remain by August.
“It’s not going to be easy to put a quality network together around the country. It’s going to take time,” Roe said. “We have a little bit of a break. We have all of 2017 to do that.”
Forming the committee
The House committee started taking shape this week, and it will meet for the first time Friday.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., was elected its ranking member after the former top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., conceded Monday.
Walz, who retired as a command sergeant major after 24 years in the Army National Guard, has served on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee since the start of his first term in 2007.
Roe said Rep. Gus Bilrakis, R-Fla., will continue in his role as vice chairman and Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., will lead the subcommittee on oversight and investigations. Bergman, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, is a freshman member of Congress this year.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., will act as chairman of the subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs; Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas -- another new Republican in Congress -- will act as chairman of the subcommittee on economic opportunity, and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio., will act as chairman of the subcommittee on health.
On Wednesday, Roe named all 12 Republicans committee members. Four Republicans new to Congress, in addition to Bergman and Arrington, are on the committee: Jim Banks of Indiana, Neal Dunn of Florida, Clay Higgins of Louisiana and John Rutherford of Florida.
Other Republicans who have previously served on the House committee are Doug Lamborn of Colorado, Mike Coffman of Colorado and Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa.
A list of Democratic members was not available Thursday, but Roe said its membership on the committee includes Takano, Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, Kathleen Rice of New York and Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
“This is probably one of the few committees on The Hill that is very bipartisan,” Roe said. “I have a great relationship with the Democrats. I’ve spoken with some of the older members on the Democratic side and found out what their priorities were and what they’d like to get done.”
With a stethoscope lying on his desk in the foreground, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., speaks with Stars and Stripes reporter Nikki Wentling about his experience as a medical doctor as well as his new role as the recently designated chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affiairs in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES