House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (HVAC) held a hearing looking at the ongoing transformation of the VA and its role in the future
By PVA National Staff
In late February, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (HVAC) held a hearing looking at the ongoing transformation of the VA and its role in the future. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and the Executive in Charge of the Veterans Health Administration Dr. Richard Stone were the only witnesses, and the tone of the hearing was very cordial. Chairman Mark Takano (D-CA), Ranking Member Dr. Phil Roe (R-TN), and Secretary Wilkie touched on the VA MISSION Act in their opening statements before moving quickly to a question and answer round that touched on a number of subjects.
The first issue discussed was the recent Federal Circuit Decision (Procopio vs. Wilkie) that grants Blue Water Navy Veterans the same presumption of exposure to herbicides as veterans who served with “boots on the ground” in Vietnam. Asked if he intended to appeal that decision, Secretary Wilkie said he has not made any recommendations to do so nor did he intend to. He also said VA was ready to meet the dictates of the decision if it were allowed to stand, and, if that happened, that he would come back to lawmakers for the necessary resources to execute it.
Wilkie announced the day before the hearing that the Veterans Benefits Administration will amend its priority processing categories to include initial claims received from Purple Heart recipients on or after April 1st. During the hearing, Wilkie told lawmakers that they will use the DD Form 214 to establish eligibility and VA will do all it can to help veterans whose records may have been destroyed in the 1973 fire.
A number of questions also focused on the care of women veterans. Secretary Wilkie noted that women make up 17 percent of the current active force, and that is anticipated to increase to 20 percent by 2025. Women now comprise 10 percent of the veterans population. Like PVA, the secretary stated that he looks forward to working with a new congressional task force that has been formed by HVAC to address barriers that women veterans face when trying to obtain VA benefits and health care.
Another area of high interest was the Department’s ongoing difficulties to recruit, and more importantly retain, VA health care employees. The secretary readily agreed he is concerned with the nearly 47,000 vacancies reported by the Department but said steps are being taken to rectify the issue. VA’s main focus is to hire more primary care, women’s care, and mental health care providers with incentives that include higher pay, relocation assistance, and bonuses.