June 20, 2019

Chairman Takano: “We Must Break Down Barriers for Veterans from Minority and Underserved Communities”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) delivered opening remarks before the full committee legislative hearing to address pending legislation on educational and housing benefits, medicinal cannabis, and a requirement to provide critical VA resources in Spanish. Below is a link to the video of the Chairman’s opening statement and his remarks as prepared:

Good afternoon. I call this hearing to order.

I would like to start by thanking the Veteran Service Organizations for being here—without your advocacy the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act would not be on the President’s desk awaiting his signature. We rely on you to provide feedback and expert testimony on legislation affecting veterans. Today, we ask you for the same.

The legislation on the agenda for this hearing covers a range of veterans’ issues from healthcare to educational and housing benefits to transition assistance. Today we hope to generate discussion on each of the agenda items, so we can make informed decisions on whether the legislation is ready to be considered in markup.

Four agenda items are related to medicinal cannabis.   

Cannabis must be objectively researched. Period.

Medicinal cannabis may have the potential to manage chronic pain better than opioids and treat PTSD. However, other research shows that cannabis may significantly affect brain development into early adulthood. Young servicemembers enlisting at age 17 or 18 and separating from the military at age 22 may be particularly vulnerable to its negative side effects.

I want to make sure any research legislation this Committee votes on is not written to achieve one outcome or used to “fast-track” treatments for veterans. Clinicians need to understand the efficacy of this drug and any negative side effects. In those states that allow medicinal cannabis, VA doctors should be able to provide recommendations to veterans for medicinal cannabis programs.

I also placed H.R. 3083, the AIR Acceleration Act on the agenda today because I have serious concerns about VA’s implementation of the AIR Act. We have received no information from VA on the market assessments to give this Committee confidence that the Commission, when it is scheduled to meet, will have the data it needs to make informed decisions.

It’s important that we have a public discussion of these concerns and hear from stakeholders because I do not believe it makes sense to speed up this process right now. VA’s lack of transparency should be concerning to us all. 

I would also like to highlight two bills introduced by Representative Cisneros that I support. H.R. 2942, that  authorizes an existing Air Force women’s health TAP pilot program and H.R. 2943 would codify an existing regulation that all VA fact sheets be available to veterans in Spanish.

During a recent visit to the VA Medical Center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Committee staff saw firsthand why VA should be mandated by law to provide materials in Spanish.

I was shocked to learn that key letters, fact sheets, and employee training modules developed to educate veterans and staff on the MISSION Act, were only produced and mailed to veterans in English.

In Puerto Rico, where Spanish is the predominant language, this meant veterans and hospital employees were not notified about the upcoming changes with the MISSION Act and employees were not prepared to implement the law on June 6th. Hospital staff in San Juan—to their credit—translated and reproduced the materials in Spanish on their own because the translation provided by a contracted vendor was poor and inadequate.

The Veterans Crisis Line – a lifeline for veterans thinking about suicide –operates only in English. The Puerto Rico VA Medical Center established its own local crisis line in Spanish, but when my staff called the number, on several occasions no one answered.

Think about that for a moment: help is only available at the VA if you understand English.

According to 2015 census data: “On average 73 percent of Hispanics speak a language other than English at home and 31 percent of Hispanics state that they are not fluent in English.”

“VA statistics predict an increase in the Hispanic veteran population from 7.4 percent in 2017 to 11.2 percent by 2037.”

Failing to provide veterans with clear explanations of their benefits in Spanish mean Latinx veterans will lose out on GI Bill benefits, VA home loans, or healthcare programs like the MISSION Act. Veterans won’t receive their burial benefits if their surviving family members do not understand English. A Spanish-speaking veteran’s call to the Veterans Crisis Line would, in effect, remain unanswered.

VA should already be providing Spanish language materials, but it is falling short in too many cases. When I became Chairman of this Committee, I committed to you that we would work to break down barriers for veterans from minority and underserved communities. Mr. Cisneros’s bill is one small step towards this effort. It’s not enough that this is VA regulation. We must make this the law and exercise this Committee’s oversight authority to make sure VA is following it. 

Let me say that again, though slightly differently. Esta propuesta legislativa, presentada por el Congresista Cisneros, representa un avance para abordar este importante tema y aumentar el número de materiales disponibles en español para nuestros veteranos. No es suficiente que el Departamento de Veteranos ya tenga una regla en vigor.

Nosotros, como miembros de esta cámara legislativa, tenemos que crear una ley con este requisito y también asegurar que el comité ejerza su mandato de supervisión sobre este departamento.

###