Ensuring the Department of Veterans Affairs does not get overwhelmed by the influx of new patients and claims coming from the sweeping toxic exposure law passed last year will be a priority of the new House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, the lawmaker told Military.com in an interview.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., said he sees no signs yet that the VA is being overwhelmed, noting that the law, known as the PACT Act, also gave the department the funding and flexibility to hire more claims processors and medical staff. But he added that it will be important for Congress to stay on top of the issue as the implementation progresses.
"That's 3.5 million-plus new people receiving services. That's a lot of people on a system that's already a big system," Bost said in the Monday phone interview. "We got to make sure that we're ready to roll and no one loses out on what they're already receiving."
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The PACT Act, which was signed into law in August, expanded VA health care and benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their military service, including Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who breathed in fumes from burn pits.
The department began accepting benefits claims shortly after the law was enacted and processing them at the start of January. As of Tuesday, the VA had received 278,000 PACT Act claims and processed 39,250, approving nearly 85% of them, VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters at his monthly news conference.
The claims backlog, defined as claims older than 125 days, has grown by roughly 50,000 since September to 200,140, but the department has hired about 2,000 new claims processors and is using an automated system to process some.
Bost and most other House Republicans opposed an initial version of the PACT Act that was drafted by House Democrats over what they said were concerns about existing VA patients being hurt if the system is overwhelmed. But Bost supported the version that became law, which was negotiated by Senate Democrats and Republicans and included the extra hiring authorities meant to assuage concerns about the VA not being able to handle the new workload.
Bost also said he plans to focus on "bringing the VA -- maybe kicking and screaming -- into the 21st century," including updating technology and infrastructure.
On technology, Bost plans to target the VA's troubled new electronic health records system, which has received bipartisan scorn for glitches that have risked patient safety.
He and other House Republicans are introducing two bills related to the program. The department has paused rolling out the system to more locations until at least June while it reviews problems. One bill would require the department to certify that the system has been improved before moving forward with it. The other would end the program altogether.
"The goal is wonderful," Bost said. "The system they're trying to use is terrible. And there's no reason why we should have to make our employees and most of all our veterans suffer with a system that they can't get right."
McDonough on Tuesday provided no update on the review process, but stressed the importance of the VA having modern digital medical records that are compatible with the Defense Department. He also said he hears "broad support" in Congress for the idea of the program but understands there is "frustration that it has not been rolled out more quickly and efficaciously."
Bost is taking over as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee after two years as the panel's top Republican while his party was in the minority in the lower chamber. With Republicans holding a narrow majority in the House, this congressional session is expected to be marked by partisan gridlock. The Veterans Affairs Committee has typically been able to stay out of the partisan fray and advance bipartisan bills, though some hearings have devolved into partisan fighting.
Bost said he's committed to keeping the committee bipartisan during his tenure, though he acknowledged there are "certain people who have tried to make everything partisan" and that some of his priorities, such as a bill relating to veterans' gun rights, could be seen as partisan.
"When I first came in, the VA committee was one of the most nonpartisan committees that was out there. I have all intention of making sure it's that way," he said.
The gun rights bill, which Bost first introduced last congressional session, would prohibit the VA from sending a veteran's information to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System solely on the basis that the department has appointed a "fiduciary" to handle the veteran's benefits.
The VA, which appoints fiduciaries who manage a veteran's financial affairs after determining a beneficiary is "mentally incompetent" under VA regulations, has been reporting those names to the background check system since 1998 under its interpretation of the gun control legislation known as the Brady Law. However, Congress passed a law in 2016 requiring the department to notify beneficiaries before making a determination and giving them an opportunity to contest the decision.
Bost framed his bill as a matter of expanding mental health access, arguing some veterans who need VA mental health care could be deterred from seeking it out of fear of losing their gun rights.
"We have a real problem with the fact that only six of the 20 that commit suicide have ever even talked or visited any program with the VA," Bost said, using the number of veterans the department said died by suicide each day in 2016. The VA's most recent estimate is that an average of 16.8 veterans die by suicide a day.
One bill that veterans service organizations and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., have identified as a priority this year could face a harder time in the House. The Major Richard Star Act seeks to ensure that service members who medically retire before 20 years have full access to both military retirement pay and VA disability benefits. Right now, veterans with a disability rating of less than 50% have retirement pay reduced a dollar for every dollar of disability pay they get. The bill got 335 House co-sponsors and 66 Senate co-sponsors from parties last session, but went nowhere.
The issue falls under the jurisdiction of both the Veterans Affairs and Armed Services committees, but Bost told Military.com he believes the bill is best handled by the Armed Services Committee and sidestepped questions about his personal stance on the measure.
"I know that there's a lot of veterans out there that are concerned about it. I'm concerned about it, as well. And so we're gonna watch the process and see how they handle it over in that committee, and when it comes up on the floor, I'll make my decision based on the language that is in it," he said.
But first, Bost said his committee will get started with some easier work: advancing bills that passed the House last congressional session but were never taken up by the Senate. About 25 veterans bills passed the House last session that weren't taken up by the Senate, according to Bost's office.
Bost plans to revisit bills to clarify that a spouse or dependent is not responsible for repaying GI Bill benefits if a service member transfers them and then fails to fulfill their service obligation; establish performance metrics for VA human resources employees; and standardize the disability benefits questionnaires contractors use to support veterans' benefits claims so they can be read by automation software, among others.
"Those will be the first ones that we can aggressively get them back out there and send them back to the Senate and see if the Senate will actually take them up this time," he said, jokingly adding that he "won't hold my breath."
"We're going to hit the ground running."
-- Patricia Kime contributed to this report.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.
Related: VA to Begin Processing Burn Pit and Related Claims Under Landmark PACT Act on Jan. 1