Legislative UpdateBVA Director of Government Relations Melanie Brunson

by Melanie Brunson

New Administration, New VA Secretary

I was pleased to begin penning the current Update for our Bulletin readers on the eve of the inauguration of our nation’s 45th President, which was also two weeks after the opening of the 115th Congress. As January 20 came and went, other events occurred in a whirlwind.

The House of Representatives and Senate reconvened and began their work two weeks before the Inauguration. The attention of most Capitol observers has been on the Senate, which began conducting hearings on President Trump’s nominations for members of his cabinet. On that very subject, on February 1, three weeks after the announcement of his appointment, I attended the confirmation hearing for Under Secretary for Health David J. Shulkin to become the ninth Secretary of Veterans Affairs since VA became a cabinet-level department of the federal government.

Dr. Shulkin’s recent firsthand experience at VA should serve him well if and when he is confirmed.

The Senate previously confirmed him unanimously as Under Secretary for Health in June 2015. As Under Secretary, Dr. Shulkin has directed the work of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the nation’s largest integrated health care system with more than 1,700 sites of care and serving 8.76 million veterans each year.

Prior to being nominated by President Obama for his VHA appointment, Dr. Shulkin served in numerous chief executive roles, including that of President of Morristown Medical Center, Goryeb Children’s Hospital, and Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute. He also served as President and CEO of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and as Chief Medical Officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Temple University Hospital, and the Medical College of Pennsylvania Hospital.

Newly appointed VA Secretary David J. Shulkin, one of four featured speakers at the BVA 71st National Convention Thursday Forum on August 25, 2016.

Newly appointed VA Secretary David J. Shulkin, one of four featured speakers at the BVA 71st National Convention Thursday Forum on August 25, 2016.

Dr. Shulkin addressed members of BVA at the Association’s 71st National Convention during the traditional Thursday forum on August 25 of last year. His presentation described 25 ways in which VA is leading in U.S. health care, emphasizing the well-rounded nature of VA care and the comprehensive definition of the term health. He also cited various research studies demonstrating that VA outperforms its private sector counterparts.

BVA has had a positive working relationship with Dr. Shulkin since he assumed his current position and we are looking forward to working with him to build on the changes that have begun throughout the department. At press time, now that the hearing has occurred, Dr. Shulkin awaits a Committee vote that will likely recommend him for approval by the full Senate. The timeline for both events is currently uncertain. Once they occur, we will post details on our website and circulate them through our legislative email list as well.

New 115th Congress

Speaking of the Senate VA Committee, the names of the Senators who will be serving on that Committee for the next two years have been announced.

Republican Members are Chairman Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Jerry Moran of Kansas, John Boozman of Arkansas, Dean Heller of Nevada, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.

Democrats on the Committee are Ranking Member Jon Tester of Montana, Patty Murray of Washington, Bernie Sanders of Vermont (an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats), Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Please keep those lists handy for future reference, especially if your own Senator is included on one of them.

House leaders have also completed their assignments for the Committee. It will be chaired by Representative Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN-1). Dr. Roe served two years in the U.S. Army Medical Corps following graduation from medical school. He was elected to Congress in 2008 and has been a member of the Committee most of that time.

The Ranking Member of the House Committee will be Representative Tim Walz (D-MN-1), who enlisted in the Army National Guard at age 17 and retired 24 years later as Command Sergeant Major. Before retiring, he served overseas with his battalion in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Representative Walz is the highest ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress.

Republican Members of the Committee are Doug Lamborn from the Fifth District of Colorado, Gus Bilirakis from the Twelfth District of Florida, Mike Coffman from the Sixth District of Colorado, Brad Wenstrup from the Second District of Ohio, Amata Coleman Radewagen from American Samoa, Mike Bost from the Twelfth District of Illinois, Jodey Arrington from the Nineteenth District of Texas, Jim Banks from the Third District of Indiana, Jack Bergman from the First District of Michigan, Neal Dunn from the Second District of Florida, Clay Higgins from the Third District of Louisiana, and John Rutherford from the Fourth District of Florida.

At press time, there were three remaining vacancies on the minority side of the Committee. Appointments made thus far have gone to Representatives Mark Takano from the Forty-First District of California, Julia Brownley from the Twenty-Sixth District of California, Ann McLane Kuster from the Second District of New Hampshire, Beto O’Rourke from the Sixteenth District of Texas, Kathleen Rice from the Fourth District of New York, and Luis Correa from the Forty-Sixth District of California.

Early House Legislation

At the same time the House Committee and Subcommittees are organizing, the chamber has begun acting on some legislation. Several pieces containing provisions on which the House failed to act last year have been reintroduced and brought to the floor during the first week of the new session.

Three such bills may be of interest to our Bulletin readers.

First, the Biological Implant Tracking and Veterans Safety Act directs the VA Secretary to adopt the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Unique Device Identification system for the labeling of all biological implants and to implement an automated inventory system to ensure that veterans do not receive expired or otherwise contaminated tissue. This bill was posted by Representative Roe shortly after the House passed it with support from both parties. In January 2014, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that VA does not use a standardized process for tracking biological tissue from cadaver donors to living veteran recipients. In the event of a recall, it would often be impossible to track down which patient received contaminated tissue. The same GAO report detailed the failure of VHA to consistently ensure that VA is purchasing tissue from biological implant vendors that have registered with the FDA. This bill is meant to remedy this shortcoming.

Secondly, the Ensuring VA Employee Accountability Act, introduced by Representative Ryan Costello (R-PA-6), would require all reprimands and admonishments given to VA employees to remain in their file as long as they are employed by the Department. Under current policy, an admonishment and reprimand can only stay on an employee’s record for two and three years, respectively. The House also approved this bill.

A third bill, H.R. 369, would eliminate the “sunset” of the Veterans Choice Program. This program was created as a pilot by members of the previous Congress and was scheduled to end next year. The current bill would allow veterans who sought medical care outside VA under the pilot program to be able to continue seeing those providers at VA expense. H.R. 369 was referred to the House Committee. We will keep you posted on its progress.

Annual Testimony Fast Approaching

In other legislative news, BVA has once again been invited to testify at a joint hearing of the House and Senate VA Committees relating to our legislative priorities for 2017. We have, of course, accepted this invitation and Dale Stamper will present his testimony on March 22.

Fortunately, the hearing will take place while members of the BVA Board of Directors will be at the national headquarters for their midwinter meetings, so we are looking forward to the possibility that the entire Board will be able to go to Capitol Hill to witness Dale’s presentation to Congress. It is also likely that the hearing will be streamed live online. If you are interested in following it, please check the BVA website for details. We will post these details once they are made available, at least a few days before the hearing.

Possible Repeal of Affordable Care Act

Another news item that may be of interest concerns the votes taken this past week in both the House and Senate to approve a series of resolutions relating to the federal budget for Fiscal Year 2018. Those budget resolutions also included language that is meant to start the process of repealing the Affordable Care Act. Republican leaders wanted to start this process early in the Congressional year in order to give the new administration a quick win on one of President Trump’s campaign promises.

In spite of growing concerns among both Republicans and Democrats about the specific details of the repeal legislation, the measures passed both Houses with only a handful of Republican votes against it. Now, the task of working out those details begins in earnest. Members of Congress from both parties are calling for the repeal and replacement to occur at the same time but they have yet to agree on how a new law should look. Many will be looking to the Executive Branch to weigh in and help shape the legislation. Stay tuned for more on this subject as the situation develops.

VA Health Care Application Issue

At the end of June, VHA announced a new process to make it easier for veterans to apply for VA health care.

Shortly thereafter, BVA learned that there were some significant accessibility issues with the new health care application unveiled by VHA. Users of screen readers had difficulty because the system had improperly labeled fields throughout the form, thus making it impossible for a blind person to read the form and fill it out independently.

BVA’s Accessibility Officer, Claudia Belk, worked with VA to ensure that these issues were addressed promptly. It appears that the adjusted form is now accessible to screen readers. We will keep you posted as related accessibility issues arise. BVA continues to work with the VA Accessibility Office to address these problems.

Keeping in Touch

As additional bills are introduced in either house of Congress, we will post information about them on the BVA website and send updates through our legislative email list. If you are interested in receiving updates by email, please send a message to mbrunson@bva.org. Type the words “Legislative Email List” in the subject line.

Please feel free also to send your questions and comments to me using the same email address. It is going to be a busy year and I expect a significant number of bills and VA policy changes to continually track. The email list is a great way to get timely updates between issues of the BVA Bulletin.

We look forward to working with our BVA members throughout the year ahead and thank all of you in advance for your interest and assistance.

Audio Version Of Legislative Update