House VA committee advances $15 billion portion of Biden’s American Rescue Plan
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 11, 2021
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WASHINGTON — The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs advanced a proposal Thursday that would allot more than $15 billion to the Department of Veterans Affairs under President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan.
Biden’s plan, which he’s titled the American Rescue Plan, totals $1.9 trillion and aims to help Americans affected by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. It includes stimulus checks for many Americans and aid for the unemployed and hungry. If approved, it would add to the $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill approved in March and the $900 billion bill from December.
The committee discussed the parts of the plan Thursday that would affect veterans and the VA. After more than four hours, the committee advanced the proposal with a vote of 17-12. It sent its recommendations to the House Committee on the Budget.
“We need to act with urgency to provide relief for veterans and all Americans,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the committee chair. “The American Rescue Plan is critical to ensure veterans and the health system they rely on can continue to meet their needs and succeed in their role as the backup to America’s overwhelmed health care systems.”
All Republicans on the committee voted against the measure. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the ranking Republican on the committee, said the action to advance the bill was “reckless” and “irresponsible.”
“It’s the very first time our committee has met this Congress,” Bost said. “We’ve only been organized for five minutes. Many members are new, and we haven’t heard a single hearing or heard from a single witness. And yet, the Biden administration and a Democratic majority in Congress are rushing through a vote to spend $1.9 trillion.”
Bost noted that each year, the VA continues to receive record-breaking levels of funding. Multiple Republicans said during the hearing that they didn’t know why the department needed more money. In addition, the influx of funding was “ripe for waste, fraud and abuse,” Bost said.
“We don’t know why it’s needed, what it’s going to be used for or if veterans are going to be better off by it,” Bost said.
In December, Richard Stone, acting undersecretary of the Veterans Health Administration, asked the Senate for more funding to handle coronavirus treatment and vaccine distribution. Under the CARES Act, a coronavirus relief package approved by Congress in March, the VA health care system received $17.4 billion. Stone estimated the VA would use the rest by the end of the fiscal year, and he predicted unforeseen costs with distributing and administering coronavirus vaccines.
Stone, who led the VA’s vaccine distribution plan under President Donald Trump, was retained in his role by Biden.
According to the new legislation, most of the money — $13.5 billion — would go to the VA for veterans’ health care, staffing, suicide prevention, research and women’s health, as well as expanding telehealth, serving homeless veterans and improving medical facilities. It allows up to $4 billion to be spent on private-sector health care for veterans.
Of the remaining amount, $100 million would go toward processing veterans’ claims for benefits. The VA has been working through a backlog of hundreds of thousands of benefits claims after the process was paused at the start of the pandemic.
State-run veterans’ homes, some of which experienced deadly outbreaks of the coronavirus, would receive a total of $750 million under the bill. Of that, $500 million would be made available for construction projects that would enhance the safety of the homes. The remaining $250 million would be one-time emergency payments to homes that need help with cleaning, obtaining personal protective equipment or hiring staff during the pandemic.
More funding, about $10 million, would be allotted for the VA Office of Inspector General to conduct oversight, and $100 million would be set aside for improvements to the VA’s supply chain. About $400 million would go to the VA’s rapid retraining program, to assist veterans who are unemployed because of the pandemic.
The legislation waives copayments for VA patients through Sept. 30. It also allows the VA to reimburse veterans who already submitted copays made since April 6, 2020.
Thursday’s vote was the first action taken by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs during the new congressional session. The committee met for the first time earlier Thursday. Nine Democratic lawmakers returned to the committee, and eight are new to it. For Republicans, five members returned and eight are new.
Among the new members of the committee is Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., an outspoken Iraq War veteran elected to Congress in 2015. Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., is also joining the committee. Ruiz, a physician, has long been focused on the effects of toxic exposures, such as burn pits, on the veteran population.
The other new Democratic members are: Frank Mrvan of Indiana, Anthony Brown of Maryland, Lois Frankel of Florida, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, David Trone of Maryland and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio.
A new congresswoman, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., joined the committee. In 1999, she became the first woman to graduate from the Corps of Cadets program at the Military College of South Carolina.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., also joined the committee for the new session. Cawthorn, 25, is the youngest member of Congress and the first born in the 1990s. He applied to the U.S. Naval Academy in 2014 but was involved in a car crash the same year and was left paralyzed. During his campaign last year, he was the subject of multiple controversies around sexual misconduct and racism, all of which he denied.
The other new Republic members are Greg Murphy of North Carolina, Tracey Mann of Kansas, Barry Moore of Alabama, Nancy Mace of South Carolina, Troy Nehls of Texas, Matt Rosendale of Montana and Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa.
Mrvan, as well as returning members Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif. and Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., were assigned to lead subcommittees.