The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has 13 new members and a new chair this session, but the committee chair hopes veterans will see from the group the same focus on improving veterans’ benefits that they have had in recent years.
“There will be contentious issues,” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., who moved from the senior member last year to become chairman this year after Republicans won a majority of the House seats. “But the issues we deal with in the VA committee are not about Republicans and Democrats. It’s about the veterans and what they need and what they deserve, what they deserve.
“And it’s about making sure that providing those benefits – whether it’s healthcare or the GI bill, the list goes on and on – that she and her family get those benefits. So that doesn’t change.”
Bost, 62, is a Marine Corps veteran who has served on the Veterans Committee since entering Congress in 2015. He sat down with the Military Times this week to discuss his priorities for the committee and his goals for the upcoming congressional session.
Portions of the interview have been edited for space and clarity.
military times: What are the key issues you will address this year?
Representative Mike Bost: Much of this is accidental. Remember, last year we passed the PACT Act. … We have to make sure that it is implemented exactly as we passed it. It’s a lot of money, but getting it right is vital.
If you will recall, when the PACT Act first came up, I didn’t vote for it because it wasn’t a good fit yet. VA even said, “We can’t do it because you didn’t put the right things in there, you didn’t put the right funding in there.”
We must ensure that we move forward in such a way that no one who receives benefits from VA loses their benefits now. We need to make sure we’re providing these vets with the healthcare we are providing now and then bring in the new ones without losing anyone.
MT: VA has previously said they expect the backlog to increase [due to the PACT Act]. When will you start worrying about the rising cases?
Bost: It will start soon. We’re keeping ourselves up to date on this. We will monitor it very, very closely.
Add, we’re still trying to deal with electronic medical records and the problems there, the dangers that exist for our veterans. We only have [the new records system] in five facilities and they are not large facilities. But right at the beginning the wheels fell off.
And we are still concerned about the mission law. Remember, our veterans shouldn’t be on waiting lists. You don’t have to wait for care. You have to be able to get in [to VA medical centers], and if they can’t, they can move to the private sector. We know there are places where this is still an issue.
MT: How would you characterize your relationship with VA Secretary Denis McDonough and senior staff?
Bost: My relationship with the secretary is very good. His former boss [President Barack Obama] and I served together in the Illinois General Assembly. [McDonough] was his chief of staff.
That doesn’t mean we always agree. There’s a whole list of things we don’t do that with. But I can tell if something happens that I probably don’t agree with, he’ll call me first. This results in a very good cooperation.
MT: They have already introduced legislation related to concerns about VA’s new electronic health record system. Where are you in this program right now?
Bost: Here’s what your readers need to understand: Congress never voted for it. That was a decision made by the previous government and carried forward by this government. And failure began as soon as they started working with Cerner.
I’ve been to every place that tries to roll out the program. Some in the administration tried to put lipstick on a pig when it first came out. But they finally realized that there are problems.
There are big problems. We don’t want to waste taxpayers’ money, but we also don’t want to go down a path where we waste more taxpayers’ money. …
MT: Let me ask you about another controversy that will arise in this session: abortion. What is your plan to address this issue in the coming months,
Bost: I have already sent a letter to the Secretariat asking for information on this. In 1992, legislation was passed stating that VA would not provide for abortion. Now the secretary and his attorneys are using a 2006 law that really has nothing to do with abortion to offer these services. The courts have to clarify that.
But we still have oversight. When they start conducting a procedure or procedures that can be controversial at best, we have our oversight positions. That’s why I sent a letter [requesting more information].
I don’t want to know specific names. It’s none of my business, it’s none of our business as committees. But what procedures do you perform? How many are you performing? Is it the morning after pill? Are they late abortions?
[This policy] allows very, very wide opportunities to perform abortions. If they want to go this route, then the legislature should decide.
MT: You’ve had a lot of changes on the committee, but you’ve also added some more veterans. How do you think this will affect some of the discussions on the committee?
Bost: Of our five subcommittee chairs, four are veterans and veterans from a variety of backgrounds. We have veterans who were doctors, veterans who were enlisted, and officers. And we have a veteran — Rep. Jack Bergman — who’s been on the committee with me for ages, and he’s a great friend.
These veterans, you better believe, are passionate about making sure VA delivers the services that veterans need. And many of them were in a situation where they were trying to get the services but not getting the quality they wanted. Your passion for helping veterans is just incredible.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has been covering Washington, DC, since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veteran politics. His work has received numerous awards including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award and the VFW News Media Award.