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Public Statements

Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention and Health Care Enhancement Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Ms. BUERKLE. I thank the chairman.

Madam Speaker, I rise in strong support of H.R. 2074, as amended, the Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention and Health Care Enhancement Act. H.R. 2074, as amended, includes several worthy legislative proposals brought forth by the Members from both sides reflecting the subcommittee's oversight and activities to date.

This bill would create a safer Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, allow for greater flexibility in VA payments to State Veterans homes, break down barriers to care for veterans with traumatic brain injury, clarify access rights of service dogs on VA property, and expand an innovative therapeutic option for veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress.

Section 2 of the bill would require the VA to develop a comprehensive policy on the prevention, monitoring, reporting, and tracking of sexual assaults and other safety instances at VA facilities. I, along with the chairman, introduced this measure in response to a disturbing report issued by the Government Accountability Office in early June of this year regarding the prevalence of sexual assaults and other safety instances on VA property and the very serious safety vulnerabilities, security problems, and oversight failures by VA leadership.

Abusive behavior like the kind documented by GAO is unacceptable in any form, but for it to be found in what should be an environment of caring for our honored veterans is simply intolerable.

As a registered nurse and domestic violence counselor, I am all too familiar with the corrosive and harmful effects sexual and physical violence can have on the lives of its victims. It is an experience I wish on no one, much less one of our Nation's heroes or hardworking medical professionals.

Madam Speaker, it is critically important that we take every available step to protect the personal safety and well-being of our veterans who seek care through the VA and all of the hardworking employees who strive to provide that care on a daily basis.

The provisions included in this bill would require VA to develop clear and comprehensive criteria with respect to the reporting of instances for both clinical and law enforcement personnel, a comprehensive policy on reporting and tracking, risk assessment tools, a mandatory safety awareness and preparedness training program for employees, appropriate physical security precautions, and a centralized and accountable oversight system.

Madam Speaker, I'm confident that these requirements will resolve the many wrongs uncovered by the GAO and ensure that the VA health care system remains a safe haven of healing for our honored veterans.

Madam Speaker, section 3 of the bill would allow for increased flexibility in establishing rates for reimbursement to State homes for nursing home care provided to veterans with a service-connected disability rated at 70 percent or greater, or in need of such care due to a service-connected condition.

State veterans homes have a long history of providing high quality care to some of our Nation's most vulnerable veterans. By requiring the VA to enter into a contract or agreement separately with each State home based on the particular needs of that veteran, this bill would correct an unintended consequence in law that has negatively impacted certain State homes and, consequently, the veterans under their care.

This proposal was spearheaded by my friend and colleague, the ranking member from Maine, Mr. Mike Michaud. I would like to thank him for his advocacy and his hard work in advancing this proposal and recognizing the great service that our State homes provide.

Madam Speaker, section 4 of the bill would improve the provision of rehabilitative care to veterans with traumatic brain injury by including the goal of maximizing independence and improving behavioral and mental health functioning within individual rehabilitation and reintegration programs.

It would also require that rehabilitative services be included within any comprehensive long-term care services for veterans with traumatic brain injury. Many concerns have been raised by veterans and veterans service organizations that current law is being inappropriately interpreted to limit rehabilitative care for veterans with TBI to only those services that restore function.

Madam Speaker, it is vital that we ensure that the recovery process for our veterans, especially those facing a lifetime of cognitive and neurological impairment, is ongoing, unburdened by institutional barriers, and extends beyond a strictly medical model to include services that allow those struggling to advance functional gains and reintegrate successfully into their home communities.

Madam Speaker, this provision was introduced by Mr. Tim Walz of Minnesota, a veteran and valuable member of our Subcommittee on Health, and I would like to extend my personal gratitude to him for his service and for this proposal.

Section 5 of the bill would clarify the access rights of service dogs on VA property and in VA facilities. This provision, introduced by Mr. John Carter of Texas, would amend an outdated VA policy that has left some disabled veterans and service dogs they need to function out in the cold.

Unlike guide dogs for visually impaired veterans, service dogs are not guaranteed entry at VA facilities under Federal law. Recognizing the immense therapeutic value service dogs can have in promoting functionality and independence for our veterans, this provision would require that service dogs do have access to VA facilities consistent with the same terms and conditions and subject to the same regulations as generally govern the admittance of guide dogs on VA property.

Madam Speaker, section 6 of this bill would direct VA to carry out a 3-year pilot program to assess the effectiveness of addressing post-deployment mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD symptoms, through service dog training therapy.

This legislation would allow for the expansion of promising and successful service dog training therapy programs currently in use at the VA Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Maryland. Veterans participating in these programs have demonstrated improved emotional regulation, social integration, sleep patterns, and a sense of purpose and personal safety.

The prevalence, Madam Speaker, of post-deployment mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder is rising among our veteran population, with over 190,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan having sought treatment in VA for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Veterans who struggle with mental health issues need and deserve the very best we can provide in care and treatment. Providing them with every tool necessary to reintegrate healthfully back into their families and home communities and achieve maximum health and wellness is one of my and my subcommittee's top priorities.

We must continue to explore new and innovative therapeutic options to alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress; and I thank my friend and fellow New Yorker, Mr. Michael Grimm, for his previous service to our country in the Marine Corps and for his very strong commitment to moving this initiative forward to assist his fellow veterans.

Finally, Madam Speaker, section 7 of the bill would eliminate the requirement for the VA to provide Congress with an annual report on staffing for nurses and nurse anesthetists. This cumbersome and costly report was enacted almost 11 years ago. It is estimated to cost approximately $113,000 per year to produce. The report's intended purpose was to keep Congress apprised of recruitment and retention issues facing certain nursing positions within the VA. However, following that, Congress enacted Public Law 107-135, the Veterans Affairs Health Care Programs Enhancement Act, which fundamentally strengthened VA's ability to recruit and retain qualified nursing professionals through additional employee benefits and incentives.

Reporting requirements included in this law, as well as a variety of other ways and means in which Congress can obtain such data, render this report unnecessary. Further, for the last several years, the report has concluded that nurse staffing remain stable within the Veterans Affairs Department. Additionally, eliminating the burdensome reporting requirement does not in any way reduce other existing requirements for VA to gather information on nurse staffing facility leadership, ensuring that such data continues to be readily available to Congress and other stakeholders.

Madam Speaker, it has been an honor for me to work with my colleagues in a truly bipartisan manner to move H.R. 2074, as amended, forward; and I would like to thank each of them, particularly Chairman Jeff Miller and Ranking Member Bob Filner, and Health Subcommittee ranking member, Mike Michaud, for their tireless support on behalf of our honored veterans.

Madam Speaker, I urge all of my colleagues to join me in supporting this important legislation.


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