Chairman Roe Awarded The Legion’s Distinguished Service Award
This morning, Chairman Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.) was awarded The American Legion’s Distinguished Public Service Award at The Legion’s Washington Conference.
Thank you for having me this morning. It is a tremendous honor to be here with you, the nation’s largest Veterans Service Organization.
I want to begin by recognizing my fellow Tennessee Legionnaires, particularly my good friend representing Post 61 out of Mountain City, Tennessee – Mr. Bob Hensley. Would Bob and any other Tennesseans in the room please stand or raise your hand to be recognized?
Today, I’d like to look back at the work we’ve done together since I’ve served in Congress and touch on the tasks we have ahead of us. The American Legion has served generations of veterans for nearly one-hundred years. The advocacy of this incredible organization has remained steadfast through multiple administrations, multiple Congresses, during times of peace, and through times of war. The men and women in this room carry on the mission of The American Legion with the same dedication Legionnaires have shown for nearly 100 years.
In fact, The American Legion received their charter from Congress in 1919. The Legion’s commitment to veterans will hit 100 years next year, and I’m proud of the work Ranking Member Tim Walz and I did to pave the way for a commemorative coin for The American Legion to celebrate this centennial anniversary.
While The American Legion has a record to be proud of, as an organization you have much to look forward to as well. The future of The American Legion is bright. This last August, you made history by electing your first ever female national commander, Commander Denise Rohan.
I’ve personally had the opportunity to meet with Commander Rohan, and I can tell you right now that the 2 million members of this organization could not have picked a better leader. Commander Rohan – thank you for having me today. I look forward to hearing from you at tomorrow morning’s hearing about The American Legion’s legislative goals for the upcoming year.
While I took over as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last January, I’ve served on the committee since 2009 when I was sworn in to Congress. At that time, it wasn’t known as a great committee to serve on, but I knew we had an opportunity ahead of us to make a difference on behalf of the more than 18 million veterans around this great country. As I mentioned, The American Legion has been an invaluable partner to Congress for nearly 100 years, but I want to share some of what we’ve worked together to achieve since I’ve served on the committee.
The American Legion helped push the original post 9-11 caregiver bill through Congress back in 2009, and now – as we’re working to responsibly expand this program – The Legion has been just as active in this discussion as they were nine years ago.
The Legion has supported every effort in Congress to modernize the claims processing system and force VA to invest in IT programs that help the department serve veterans efficiently. Additionally, in part because of your advocacy, VA is now moving to implement a new system to review disability appeals claims as part of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act that was signed into law last August. There are over 400,000 veterans waiting to hear back from VA about their appeal, but this bill will help speed up that process. We now have a duty to make sure the department implements this important legislation in a way that truly benefits veterans, and I know Tdhe Legion will be just as active in our oversight as they were in getting the appeals modernization bill over the finish line.
You all helped get the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 through Congress. The VOW Act made the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, mandatory for most all servicemembers and authorized a year of Montgomery GI Bill benefits for training for in-demand jobs for nearly 100,000 unemployed veterans between the ages of 35-60 through Veterans Retraining Assistance Program.
Speaking of the GI Bill, last August President Trump signed the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 into law. Now that’s a mouth full, so I can understand why folks decided to call it the “Forever GI Bill” for short, but I also know the importance of the full name of this legislation to The Legion.
Harry W. Colmery was the national commander of The American Legion in 1936. He wrote the original GI Bill back in 1944 on a notepad at the Mayflower Hotel. I’m told it took him five months to hand-write this important legislation. His dedication should be an example to all of us as we continue our fight to ensure the men and women who serve have access to the resources they have earned, and his legacy is carried on by the men and women in this room who worked with us – even when others said no – to make the Forever GI Bill a reality.
Harry W. Colmery was awarded The Legion’s Distinguished Service Medal in 1975 and died four years later in 1979. It was a privilege to name the Forever GI Bill in his honor.
As many of you know, in 2014, disturbing information about the Department of Veterans Affairs was brought to light. I know there are members of the press here today, and I’d like to highlight the role the media played in sharing information with the public then. Now, you are playing a critical role in sharing the stories of the brave men and women who have sacrificed so much for us. Their sacrifices should not go unnoticed, and every veteran and active duty servicemember who honorably serves their country deserves the opportunity to share their story.
Last year we finally got legislation to bring accountability to the department signed into law after a years-long push. I’ve said it many times before, but most VA employees are good, hard-working men and women who take their mission to serve veterans seriously. With that said, the bad actions of a few tainted the good name and reputation of many for far too long. Our veterans deserve better, and the VA employees who fulfill their duties deserve better.
The committee has uncovered a host of cases where employees should have been fired, but VA did not have the authority or willingness to dismiss them in a reasonable timeframe due to outdated civil service rules and a general lack of accountability. Now, because of the accountability law, that will change.
And we couldn’t have gotten this legislation to the president’s desk without The American Legion. When I say that, I mean it. The American Legion was one of the first VSOs to come out strong, favoring this legislation beginning in 2014 and I thank you for that.
Thanks to your leadership and the bipartisan commitment we share in Congress to get things done on behalf veterans, we’ve achieved a lot since I’ve served as chairman over the last year. Still, there is much work ahead.
As I mentioned before, we’ve got to find a way to responsibly expand VA’s caregiver program, to conduct oversight to ensure the bills we've passed are implemented properly and that the upcoming transition to an interoperable electronic health record is done in a way that doesn’t waste tax dollars and – most importantly – is not disruptive to veterans’ care. Additionally, we’re working to streamline the way veterans receive care from VA.
Easy enough, right?
There’s a lot of talk about privatization right now, and I want you to know that I stand with you in opposing privatizing the department. But I also want to note that I think the argument there’s some large movement to do away with VA is a false premise. While some may want to do away with VA - though I personally haven’t heard anyone propose that - I can tell you right now that Congress has used our power of the purse strings to reaffirm our commitment to VA time and time again.
Since 2006, VA’s budget has increased 175 percent. Anyone who reviews VA’s budget over the last decade can see that more and more resources are being provided for in-house services, especially health care. Why in the world would we support such strong investments in VA if our endgame was to privatize the system? VA isn’t going anywhere, but we do need to take steps to ensure the department is focused on their mission and using resources wisely to serve veterans. That’s why I’ve proposed legislation to provide a comprehensive, non-partisan review of VA’s assets, and I am so grateful to have the support of The American Legion for this important bill.
One way I believe we can give veterans more options for care is to expand their access to quality providers. In 2014, Congress created the Veterans Choice Program to give veterans the option to seek care in the community. But the concept of community care is not new. VA has been partnering with community providers since the 1940’s.
It should go without saying that VA cannot be everywhere, providing everything, to every veteran. Expecting VA to perform like that sets the department up for failure. Further, we’ve seen time and time again that there is strong demand for veterans to have the option to seek care outside VA.
As we continue to explore options for improving VA’s community care programs, our focus will be to preserve VA’s role as the central coordinator of care for enrolled veterans while increasing their options for care and simultaneously investing in a stronger VA. That is also the purpose of my asset and infrastructure review legislation: to provide a process insulated from politics for VA to take a comprehensive look at their assets to ensure resources are going where they are needed. I realize this is no small task, but it’s a task too important to get wrong.
Another important issue we’ll be working on is VA’s transition to an interoperable health records system. The very first hearing I held as chairman was an oversight hearing to take a look at VA’s IT systems. Many of the issues we see within the department are a direct result of an outdated IT system – whether it’s a delay in processing claims, the inability for the Department of Defense and VA to share records or even the payment of community care providers.
I wholeheartedly believe that, to ensure our veterans are receiving the best possible care, we must also take a look at the systems VA has in place, particularly in regards to information technology. From delivering timely care to veterans, to ensuring that medical records follow the patient, to making benefits decisions accurately, modern IT systems are essential.
One of the committee’s focuses this year will be to provide the support and oversight necessary for VA to successfully carry out its ongoing IT projects.
As chairman, I pledge to you today that I will work as hard as I can to ensure veterans have timely access to quality care. You, the men and women who put on a uniform to serve this country, kept the promise you made to our great nation. You deserve for us to keep our promises, too.
As a Vietnam-era veteran who was told not to wear his uniform upon arriving stateside, I’ve seen firsthand a nation that did not respect the sacrifice made by soldiers who were asked or told to go to war, and I will never allow our heroes to the treated this way again.
There is much work to do, but I know – together – we can make a difference. I greatly appreciate the hard work The American Legion has put forward for veterans over the past 99 years, and I wish this organization the absolute best in the 99 years to come. Thank you again for having me and for all you’re doing to honor the men and women who truly make America great.