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Chairman Roe Makes the Case for VA Asset Review

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Washington, October 12, 2017 | comments
Today, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, chaired by Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.), held a legislative hearing on two bills to authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to sell Pershing Hall in Paris, France, and to direct the department to take a comprehensive look at its assets and infrastructure and devise a plan to move forward in investing in a stronger VA.  

Opening Remarks As Prepared for Delivery

The Committee will come to order. 

Welcome and thank you all for joining us for today’s Full Committee legislative hearing.

This morning, we will be focusing on two pieces of legislation:

- the draft Asset and Infrastructure Review - or AIR - Act of 2017; and,

- H.R. 2773, a bill to authorize the sale of Pershing Hall in Paris, France.

Since Rep. Coffman (Mike) will be speaking shortly on H.R. 2773 - which he sponsors - I will contain my comments to the draft bill that Ranking Member Walz and I have worked on together. 

Exactly three months ago today, we held a Full Committee hearing to examine concerns regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) capital asset program and the alignment - or misalignment, as the case may be - of VA medical facilities and the veteran patient population.

I came to that hearing familiar with the numerous challenges VA was facing with regard to managing an increasingly unmanageable real property portfolio.

In fact, I was so aware of those challenges that I had already decided that taking action to address them was going to be one of my top priorities as Chairman. 

Yet, that hearing was alarming even to me as VA’s own testimony noted that the majority of VA’s facilities have outlived their useful life-cycle.

A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Northport, New York, to meet with staff at the Northport VA Medical Center (VAMC). 

The Northport VAMC is a 90-year old facility on a sprawling medical campus that struggles with significant maintenance issues and costs despite dozens of mothballed buildings.

The condition of that facility has gotten so bad that some veterans claim they can no longer seek care there safely and instead travel from Northport to New York City to visit the VA facilities there.

After visiting Northport, I went to Canandaigua, New York, to visit the Canandaigua VAMC and the Veterans Crisis Line, which is housed there.

The Canandaigua VAMC is an 84-year old facility that sits on a 150-acre campus in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

However, the majority of veteran patients in Canandaigua’s catchment area seek care through the VA community-based outpatient clinic about thirty miles away in Rochester.

That clinic is near bursting at the seams from high utilization while the Canandaigua VAMC largely sits empty.

In both Northport and Canandaigua, I saw firsthand the consequences of outdated and oversized medical campuses that struggle to maintain current standards of care without significant back-bending.

And we wonder why the VA healthcare system has struggled to provide care that meets the highest access and quality standards in recent years? 

That is why Ranking Member Walz and I are working together on this draft of the AIR Act. 

This legislation would require the Secretary to develop criteria to assess and recommend changes to VA medical facilities.

That criteria would be published on the Federal Register, subject to a 30-day public comment period, and would be required to take into account a number of factors including access to care, the capacity of the local healthcare market, input from local veterans and stakeholders, and potential costs and savings.

The legislation would also establish an eleven-member Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission that would use the criteria established by the Secretary and the recommendations for action made by the Secretary to develop a report containing findings and recommendations for the modernization and realignment of VA medical facilities.

Should the Commission find that any of the Secretary’s recommendations deviate substantially from the Secretary’s criteria and a change is needed, the Commission would be required to publish a notice of the proposed changed in the Federal Register and conduct public hearings in the local community on the proposed changed.

Once final, the Commission’s report would be transmitted to the President and, contingent upon his approval, to Congress.

Should Congress disagree with the Commission’s recommendations, we would have 45 days to issue a joint resolution of disapproval.

Absent that, VA would be required to begin implementing the recommendations.

This draft bill has been circulated with VA and with VSOs and was the subject of a Full Committee roundtable in early September. 

Since then, I have met individually with many Members from both sides of the dais to discuss this language, the intent behind it, and how it aligns with ongoing efforts to course-correct VA’s many care in the community programs.

That said, this bill is still a draft and I understand that there are still a number of concerns and questions about it - particularly with regard to the timeline, the composition of the Commissioners, and the involvement of veterans and advocates.

I appreciate the many thoughtful comments made in the written statements prepared for today’s hearing by our VSO witnesses and I look forward to incorporating many of their suggested changes in the coming days.

I intend to also incorporate provisions in this bill prior to its introduction to increase the threshold of minor construction projects and expand enhanced use lease (EUL) authority.

Both of those changes have been discussed by this Committee before, have been requested by the Administration, and have the support of the VSOs.

Yet, even with those changes, it is an understatement to say that the deck is stacked against the AIR Act.

This bill is bold, transformative, and controversial.

Moving forward with it will require a significant amount of political courage and - let’s face it - Members of Congress are not known for that. 

That said - veterans, VSOs, VA employees, and taxpayers alike deserve more from each of us than to recognize how serious the problem before us is and to fail to act now to institute a solution.

As Ranking Member Walz wisely noted at our hearing in July, “we can no longer kick this can down the road” because “time is not our side” in this battle.

And, as Representative Rice said, “…if there is any Committee in Washington, D.C. that has the political courage to what is necessary it is this one.”

The AIR Act is necessary.

I will now yield to Ranking Member Walz for any opening statement that he might have. 

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