The particulars of a proposed bill intended to provide Department of Veterans Affairs grants to community groups for veteran suicide prevention created tension on a normally bipartisan Congressional veterans committee.
Bill supporters said the proposed legislation creates a pilot program to provide grants to community groups that could help hard-to-reach veterans in areas underserved by the VA, or far from VA services. Opponents said the bill doesn't include enough oversight for the money or groups it would be awarded to. The proposed bill, which has been awaiting a hearing since summer, has yet to be finalized and negotiations are ongoing.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., sparred with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie over specifics in various versions of the bill.
"The urgency of addressing veteran suicide should not be used as a pretext for allowing VA money to go to providers not held to account" or under consistent oversight, bound by performance criteria, Takano said.
At particular issue is the rate of veteran suicide -- 20 per day -- and how 14 of those 20 did not receive VA care in the two years leading to their death. Republicans and Democrats have been working behind the scenes on a compromise bill.
"The stakes could not be higher," Ranking Member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said.
"While we are here, two more veterans will take their lives," Wilkie said.
Wilkie said VA needs help reaching those veterans.
The bill is aimed at "getting the entire United States engaged in finding the 14 veterans we do not see," Wilkie said. "This is not an attempt to circumvent VA healthcare ... it is an attempt to triage in the streets and in our rural areas to help us find these veterans we cannot touch and perhaps save them from the consequences that they have experienced as a result of their service. We recognize that we need help finding these veterans. I will not sit here and tell you we will eliminate veteran suicide ... this is a good step."
Tensions already were simmering between committee Republicans and Democrats over delays in hosting a hearing for the bill. Takano said lingering concerns over grant oversight kept it off the agenda until now. Last month, Republicans stormed out of a separate hearing because of conflict over debate and amendments to another bill and, in part, because of delays on the IMPROVE Act.
Takano also alleged the bill attempts to "circumvent" the VA MISSION Act, which went into effect in June and expands the opportunities some veterans have to seek care outside VA, with VA picking up the bill.
Wilkie argued the legislation "is our way of supplementing what this committee has already done with MISSION and allows us to get out in the community and say 'Help us find these warriors,'" referring to the 14 veterans who die by suicide daily who were not receiving VA care.
Wilkie further argued that the $18 million in grants in the proposed bill is "not a lot of money for us" compared to VA's $9.5 billion mental healthcare budget within its $220 billion overall budget.
Takano accused Wilkie of improperly using VA funds to lobby members of Congress in support of the bill, which has been through several versions so far.
"This is highly inappropriate," Takano said. "Public funds should not have been used that way."
Wilkie said that VA did not violate any policy by reaching out to members of Congress to solicit them to become sponsors of the bill.
"This is too serious a matter to worry about who gets credit for the final product," Wilkie said. "We have been ignoring suicide among warriors for 200 years in this country."
Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., who introduced a recent version of the bill, said "We are going to do everything we can do reduce veteran suicide. Period. Especially in a group we have not made any dent in those suicides in several years because ... we don't have any communications ... any connection to them. They're out there alone."
Takano said he was not concerned with who may receive credit for the bill, but rather wanted to ensure that it was not possible to "exploit a weakness" in any legislation the committee signs off on.
"It's vital we build out our public health infrastructure" to help veterans, Takano said. "We've got to reach them."
Following his part of the hearing, Wilkie said he believes Congress is "close" to a passable bill.
"All the work we put into this is going to be fruitful," he said, adding that he had no lingering concerns about tension between VA and the majority.
Wilkie said he believes Bergman's compromise bill is "the best way forward," but added he had no major concerns with Takano's proposed bill, so long as either bill do not create "massive bureaucracy" and allow any qualified groups that could help veterans, regardless of their size to apply for the grants.
Lawmakers are still working to compromise on how groups will qualify for grants and which groups will be eligible. The committee held a closed hearing last week to work on a compromise and Takano and Roe said they hope to pass a bill by the end of the year.