House approves Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill led by Dent

The House of Representatives passed a military construction and veterans affairs appropriations bill on Friday that was introduced by U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA).

The fiscal year 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies (MilCon) Appropriations Act, H.R. 4974, would invest $81.6 billion in veterans and armed services – $2.1 billion more than in fiscal year 2016.

“I’m proud of this measure that was written and advanced in a bipartisan manner to provide for our veterans, our service members, and our military families,” Dent, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, said. “I am humbled by the sacrifices that our brave men and women endure in defense of our great nation, and am honored to have the privilege of leading this vital bill to ensure that they have the resources they need both in uniform and upon their transition to veteran status.”

The appropriations bill would fund medical services for 7 million service members and veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), provide $1.5 billion for Hepatitis C treatments, and place an emphasis on mental health care, suicide prevention, services for homeless veterans, and traumatic brain injuries.

A provision led by U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) to ensure that veterans receive help from a trained professional any time they call the Veterans Crisis Line was included in the bill.

“Reports that were recently released from the VA Office of Inspector General (IG) showed that calls from suffering veterans who contacted the suicide hotline at the VA were not only being sent to voicemail, but some were never even returned,” Zeldin, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said. “Each and every veteran who calls the suicide hotline should receive immediate support from a trained VA responder. The legislation that passed (on Friday), with my proposed language, clarifies that within the funding the VA will receive, a trained professional must be available to take an incoming call on the suicide hotline from a struggling veteran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is absolutely no justifiable reason that a veteran who calls the suicide hotline should ever be sent to voicemail.”

The appropriations bill includes $118 million in spending to address claims and appeals backlogs, and it would prohibit bonuses for senior VA personnel.

“I was sent to Congress to get things done, like taking care of our veterans and their families,” U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) said. “These brave men and women sacrificed so much to protect Americans. No matter what, our nation’s heroes must be taken care of. This funding bill does just that.”

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) pushed for the inclusion of language that would prevent cutting or limiting hospital-based services like those offered at a VA facility in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

“South Dakota veterans have made clear how important it is to maintain services at the Hot Springs VA Hospital and yet the administration has gone to all lengths to reduce and eliminate services,” Noem said. “Veterans and the Hot Springs community deserve long-term certainty about the future of this facility, but until we can do that in a way that preserves the care they’ve earned, I’m proud to once again prohibit the VA from spending money to shut down or limit services for rural veterans, including those who are treated in Hot Springs.”

U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) added that veterans deserve the best care that can be provided, and that the MilCon and National Defense Authorization Act would accomplish that.

“These bills ensure that our military will be provided with the resources and capabilities to confront threats and that our veterans get the care they deserve,” Denham said. “I am proud to support the men and women who put their lives on the line every day for our country as well as the ongoing effort to close the readiness gap.”

U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) introduced an amendment to the bill that would prevent funds from being used for base realignment and closure (BRAC) at the Red River Army Depot, protecting more than 5,000 jobs the region and ensuring military readiness.

“I’m proud to represent 63,000 veterans in Texas’ fourth district, and the legislation passed this week will help guarantee they receive the care and respect the most certainly have earned,” Ratcliffe said.

U.S. Rep. French Hill (R-AR) said that the appropriations bill would give the VA an increase in resources needed to care for veterans, and that he was “particularly pleased” with funding to transition to a paperless system for disability claims.

“While this bill does contain important provisions to increase congressional oversight over VA dollars — like eliminating bonus pay for poorly-performing VA executives and provisions to prevent cost overruns on construction projects —that oversight will not be as effective as it needs to be until the Senate moves the VA Accountability Act of 2016,” Hill said. “Employees who do not act in the best interest of the veteran need to be removed from the system, and I urge the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to pass this bill through committee.”

The bill would also provide $7.9 billion for new and ongoing military infrastructure projects, and it would prohibit the proposed closure of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

“I am pleased that House acted responsibly to fulfill the responsibility we have to our active-duty service members, veterans and their families,” U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said. “The funding bill passed this week reaffirms the bipartisan commitment to providing first-rate tools, resources and care to our brave individuals from the moment they commit to serve onward. I am encouraged that this legislation included solutions for confronting and correcting the inexcusable mistreatment of veterans at the VA and aims to ensure such injustice never occurs again.” 

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