U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican, serves Indiana's3rd District.
On Veterans Day, we say thank you to those who have worn the uniform of the United States, and we acknowledge the sacrifices of both those who serve and their loved ones. Our veterans deserve the utmost respect, and part of that respect means fulfilling the promises made to them.
Today, the United States is home to 21 million veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs provides health care for 62 percent of vets. Similarly, 773,000 of them depend on the GI Bill to pursue higher education.
As we have learned in recent years, too many VA facilities have struggled with extraordinarily long wait times, mismanagement, employee misconduct and poor customer service. It is imperative that Congress prioritize our veterans and improve the care and benefits they receive.
As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, I am proud of the steps we have taken this year to change the culture of the VA and address these issues. Earlier this summer, one of the largest newspapers in the country praised the committee for fashioning a “long-sought and largely bipartisan agenda” and noted that our legislative agenda has the potential to reshape the way we care for millions.
Despite the sharp political divide in our country, the Republicans and Democrats who serve on the House Veterans Affairs Committee are equally committed to caring for our veterans. This bipartisan agreement has resulted in significant legislative accomplishments.
In August, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that expands and extends the GI Bill. This law includes significant increases in GI Bill funding for reservists, guardsmen, dependents, surviving spouses and surviving dependents. It also will enable recipients to use their GI Bill benefits for a lifetime. And it included a provision I authored that made permanent a program on college campuses to assist veterans in navigating their GI benefits and charting their higher education path.
Our committee also worked to increase accountability at the VA, a necessary task after multiple scandals involving unbelievably long wait times and subpar care that proved fatal for some veterans. In May, the president signed into law a bill that increases protections for whistleblowers at the VA and makes firing poorly performing VA employees easier. This legislation will help ensure our veterans receive consistent, quality treatment when they enter a VA facility.
Congress also recently reauthorized the CHOICE program, which allows veterans to seek care from a doctor outside of the VA system if the VA cannot accommodate the veteran's medical needs. Veterans like the flexibility CHOICE offers, and our committee is working on ways to further improve the CHOICE program.
This week, two bills I authored on veterans issues passed the House. The first would correct an inconsistency in eligibility for headstones for families of veterans, and the second would ensure we are providing care to veterans in crisis after they call the Veterans Crisis Line. A staggering 20 veterans a day commit suicide, and we must act now to do whatever we can to reverse this unseemly trend.
These are two additional small but significant steps we can take to ensure we are keeping our promises to our veterans. While there is more work to be done, significant progress for our veterans has been made in 2017.
I'm proud to have served my country in uniform, and I'm proud to serve it now as a member of Congress. To all those who have served, thank you for your service and for all that you've done to protect our country. Happy Veterans Day.