By Phil Roe, M.D.
U.S. State Representative
1st District of Tennessee
One of the greatest privileges I’ve had since coming to Congress is chairing the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Over the last year, we’ve made great strides toward reforming the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), but there is still hard work ahead. One of the most important items on our agenda is ensuring veterans get access to timely care, regardless of whether that care is at a VA hospital or a facility in the community. As the Committee works to improve the quality and timeliness of care that veterans receive, my priority is ensuring benefits are never delayed, dismantled or reneged upon. With that said, reforms that ensure timely access to care are not without cost, which is why I am in the process of closely examining the president’s budget request.
Last week, I held an oversight hearing with VA Secretary David Shulkin to review the budget request for Fiscal Year 2019 (FY 19). In his budget proposal, President Trump requested $198.6 billion in funding for the department, an increase of nearly $12 billion – which is 6 percent over FY 18. While this number seems rather large, it’s even more striking when compared to the growth in VA’s budget compared to overall federal spending and the economy. Since 2006, the VA budget is up 175 percent. This significant level of investment easily debunks the notion that Congress is trying to privatize the VA. Our only mission – shared by both Republicans and Democrats – is to ensure the men and women who serve have the benefits and care they have earned and deserve.
VA will take action on many important items in FY 19. Some examples include implementation of the Forever GI Bill; appeals modernization; and the start of what will undoubtedly be a costly and lengthy replacement of VA’s electronic health record – to name a few. It is my top priority to ensure VA wisely utilizes resources to provide veterans with better quality care and more timely services.
In order to achieve these goals, one of my priorities – shared by Secretary Shulkin, Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) and my Senate counterparts – is making it easier for veterans to access timely health care. VA has been partnering with community providers since the 1940’s to provide care outside the department. The committee has heard from veterans, VA employees and industry leaders about the many obstacles that prevent VA from effectively partnering with community providers to augment in-house health care services. Consolidating community care into one cohesive program that truly serves veterans is a key investment for the future that will make every dollar spent go further, and I was pleased to see President Trump call for this consolidation in his budget proposal.
Another important priority is the establishment of a VA asset and infrastructure review process to help the department repurpose or dispose of underutilized buildings, allowing dollars to be spent where they make the most impact. As we have discussed many times, modernizing VA’s physical infrastructure is a crucial prerequisite to ensuring the future success of the VA health care system, and I was glad to see President Trump’s infrastructure plan specifically mention VA assets. Last, but certainly not least, is the implementation of a modern, commercial electronic health record. While the EHR modernization effort is necessary, it is very expensive. The contract with Cerner alone has a price tag of about $10 billion, and that doesn’t even include the costs of updating infrastructure to accommodate the new EHR, implementation support or sustaining VistA up until the day it can finally be turned off.
VA’s mission and responsibility is to serve those who served our country. VA is entrusted with significant resources, outpacing those of nearly every other agency to carry out that mission. But with substantial resources comes substantial responsibility to expend dollars wisely. I look forward to continuing my work with VA, and both President Trump and Secretary Shulkin, to take care of our active duty servicemembers, their families and veterans.
Feel free to contact my office if I can be of assistance to you or your family.