U.S. Rep. Ron Barber today introduced an amendment to a spending bill that would have protected services to veterans that are due to expire at the end of the year.
Barber's amendment also would have protected pay to active-duty military as well as the reserve and the Army and Air Force National Guard that would be interrupted by a potential government shutdown next year. The House, however, rejected Barber's amendment 232-to-189. Three Republicans and 186 Democrats supported Barber's amendment.
"None of what I've proposed here should be a partisan issue," Barber said in remarks on the floor of the House. "This is about keeping our promise to our men and women in uniform."
Barber's amendment, in addition to funding military pay for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines for one year, would have prevented the Dec. 31 expiration of three veterans' authorizations. Without those extensions, the VA will not be able to pay for some contract medical exams and will not be able to provide some services to homeless and mentally ill veterans.
"During our recent work period, I went to the airport in Tucson to honor the men and women of our Army National Guard as they left for deployment in Afghanistan," Barber said today. "I told them and their families, on behalf of all of us, how grateful we are for their service.
"And today I ask you to join with me in putting action behind those words. This is not a partisan issue. We can and must find common ground in this chamber on this issue."
Earlier today, Barber introduced the bipartisan Veterans Health Access Act, cosponsored by Rep. Todd Platts, a Pennsylvania Republican. The bill would improve veterans' access to health care by making it easier for them to be treated by private doctors and other caregivers.
There are nearly 100,000 veterans living in Barber's Southern Arizona district and he has been talking with them about veterans' issues that need to be addressed. In those discussions, Barber heard praise for care by the Veterans Administration but concerns about access to it.
In most cases, veterans who receive care from the Veterans Affairs administration must be treated at VA medical facilities. But veterans in urban areas often deal with long waits. Veterans who live in rural areas often must travel long distances, many times for procedures that might make travel that much more difficult.
Some veterans require care that is unavailable at VA facilities or they would benefit from specialized care elsewhere. Veterans with mental health issues have another problem: There simply are not enough mental health practitioners at VA facilities to provide timely and ongoing service.
Barber's bill requires that the VA give primary consideration to the best interests of the veteran in determining where and by whom veterans are treated. That determination would have to take into account distance, wait time and quality of care, thereby allowing more veterans to qualify for care at non-VA facilities or by non-VA providers.
Barber introduced the bill after discussing it last week with members of his Veterans Advisory Council. Members were supportive of the bill and suggested several changes that Barber incorporated into the final version of his legislation.
This is the third bill Barber has introduced and two have dealt with veterans' issues. In July, Barber introduced the bipartisan Protecting Veterans' Pensions Act, which will target financial companies that take advantage of veterans by selling them estate planning services and other unneeded financial services.