Congressman Jeff Fortenberry

Representing the 1st District of Nebraska

Fort Report: Caring for Our Vets

Jun 23, 2017
Fort Report

If you are starting to feel overwhelmed by our nation’s struggles, talk to a vet. If you see our policy battles as impossible to solve, talk to a vet. If you want to reconnect with those things that bind us, talk to a vet.

In Congress, we often hear about how much we care for our vets. No doubt, our hearts are in the right place. However, it is also important to remain vigilant to ensure that legislative action actually fulfills our obligation to those who have served.

Fortunately, in Nebraska, we have consistently maintained good service standards for our veterans. However, this has not always been the case across the country. I was therefore encouraged when the President today signed into law a bill that passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 works to shift and refocus the VA on what should matter the most: the needs of our veterans. As the Los Angeles Times stated, “The reform bill would make it easier to fire employees for cause, adds some protections for whistleblowers, and puts more power in the hands of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. Dan Cadwell, director of policy for Concerned Veterans for America, said the bill will replace a system he said is too bureaucratic, too lenient on employees, sending the message that the ‘days of employees who engage in flagrant misconduct are over.’”

Another positive development took place last week, when Congress reviewed its commitment to veterans in the appropriations process. As Vice Chair of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, I am pleased by the initiatives to dramatically improve veterans' care. As a start, we proposed nearly a 7% increase in veterans’ health care benefits, as well as enhanced funding in a number of high-priority areas. The appropriations bill also highlights and refocuses on high-risk illnesses like Hepatitis C, opioid abuse, and rural health initiatives that will serve veterans living outside urban areas.

The transition from military service to civilian life can be fraught with unique challenges. Some veterans thrive in that transition and go on to live exceptional lives. Others are so affected by Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), loss of limbs or sight, or other debilitating conditions that they can easily end up marginalized. Especially in urban areas, we see the scandal of veterans on the streets. To address this problem, we added a new focus in the appropriations bill on support, services, and job training for homeless veterans.

We are doing more on other fronts. For example, for the past several years, I have proposed legislation that would expand the G.I. Bill to allow veterans to use their benefit to open their own business. We have been working with veterans groups to further refine the proposal. We also have been in conversations with military leadership about the concept of professional certificate reciprocity. Exceptional training received in the military should be readily transferrable to satisfy certification standards in various states.

Finally, making health information more useful and available is essential for improving veterans’ quality of care. For years, the Department of Defense and VA health systems did not “talk” to one another. It’s better now, but the full integration of health records will halt unnecessary delays, preventable medical errors, and excessive paperwork. Veterans will be able to better move from active duty to retirement utilizing whatever health system works best for them. And their information will remain with them wherever they go.

It is not easy to make progress in Congress. Nevertheless, there are times when both parties and the administration come together for the good. Taken together, these actions for veterans represent a unique and proper American opportunity to support the men and women who have served our country. As we approach the Fourth of July and consider how to celebrate the gift of being American—it’s always good to ask a vet.