Prior to stopping by The Erwin Record on April 3, Congressman Phil Roe was welcomed as the guest speaker at the Erwin Kiwanis Club’s weekly meeting at Erwin Town Hall. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Congressman Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN) stopped by The Erwin Record on April 3 to discuss his achievements as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and share his support for the Omnibus Spending Package that was signed into law the previous week.

Roe represents the First Congressional District of Tennessee which includes Carter, Cocke, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi, Washington, Jefferson, and Sevier counties.

During the visit, he spoke about three pieces of legislation that became law in 2017: the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017; the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act; and the Harry G. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act.

The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, came about as a response to the 470,000 disability claims that have been backlogged, bringing the process to a “grinding halt” as Roe described it.

“It has taken years to get a lot of veterans’ claims adjudicated and evaluated,” Roe said. “If you have a disability claim it can take three, four, five … maybe even 10 years.”

The bill gives three lanes for a veteran to have their claim evaluated in a timely manner. Roe said there is a pilot program going on that has allowed many veterans to have their claims evaluated after having to wait for many years.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act is based off of Roe’s VA Accountability First Act, and creates a streamlined and efficient process to remove, suspend, or demote a VA employee due to poor performance or misconduct.

Roe said along with expanding protections for whistleblowers, the law ensures due process for appealing disciplinary actions and prevents the VA from removing any employee with an open whistleblower case with the Office of Special Council.

What Roe described as potentially the most important bill he has passed since being in Congress, is the Harry G. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, also known as the Forever GI bill.

“The GI bill was written by Mr. Colmery after WWII; he sat down and wrote it by hand,” said Roe. “He is an American Legion and I thought we should name this bill, since he’s the one that wrote it, we should name it after him. He still has some family members living and they were very, very pleased we were able to do that.”

Roe said when he received the GI bill in 1975-1976, he was required to use the educational benefits the bill provided within 10 years or he lost them. The new post 9/11 GI bill gave veterans 15 years to utilize those benefits.

“After that it sunsetted,” explained Roe. “What this does is it allows you to use those benefits forever.”

Another change the bill made was affording post 9/11 Purple Heart recipients 100 percent eligibility while also providing more funding for reservists and guardsmen, dependents, surviving spouses and surviving dependents.

“Now if you get wounded in service for this country you get the GI bill, Roe said. “Student Veterans of America found that 52 percent of folks who are getting out of the military use that now  as opposed to 49 percent.”

Roe said another impressive statistic was that over 70 percent of those utilizing the GI bill are able to graduate on time.

“Not only is it a great benefit, but people are actually getting stuff out of it,” he said.

Other pieces of legislation that Roe continues to work on include the Choice Program and the Department of Veterans Affairs Family Caregiver Program.

The Choice Program allows veterans to seek non-VA care if they are unable to secure an appointment at a VA medical facility within 30 days, or if they live over 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility.

“We know the VA can’t provide all of the medical services that our veterans need,” Roe said. “About 36 percent of all healthcare that the VA provides is non-VA care. There are seven ways that occurs and we are going to consolidate that into one way so it’s clear how a veteran can go outside of the VA to get healthcare.”

The Caregiver Program will expand the caregiver benefits for pre- and post-9/11 veterans who are disabled.

“Let’s say the spouse stays home to take care of them, then how are they going to live?” questioned Roe. “Disability benefits that the veteran would have, that’s not enough to keep them where they need to be, especially if they have children. We also provided caregiver benefits for them.”

Lastly, Roe is working on a strategic review of VA assets that will create an unbiased, non-partisan panel to examine Veterans Health Administration assets.

“I’ll give you an example of why the VA has to change,” Roe told The Erwin Record. “Hospitalization peaked in American in 1981, we had the most people we have ever had admitted per capita. Population has grown 40 percent since then and we have 10 percent less people in a hospital as we did then.”

Roe said the decline in hospitalizations was from the growing number of outpatient treatments, but also added that there has been a loss of about 1,500 hospitals for issues such as short staffing and inability to provide services.

“VA is going to have to get right sized, and they’re beginning to do it,” he said.

He also mentioned the implementation of an $18 billion electronic health system, what he said will be the largest implementation of any electronic health system in the world.

“I want to stick around and try to help them get that going,” Roe said.

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Roe also spoke on his support for the Omnibus Spending Package, which he said earned his support because of lowered tax rates, increased military spending and diversion of funds to address the opioid crisis.

“It lowered the tax rate for everyone … in the First Congressional District, the reason it’s important, 30 percent of the people make less than $25,000 a year,” said Roe. “We reduced the lowest tax rate from 10 percent to zero, but every single person got a tax cut with this.”

It also increased the standard deduction to $24,000, and Roe said these things were done to help boost the income of middle income people.

“On the corporate side, we had the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world,” he said. “We dropped the rate from 35 to 21 percent, and the average in the world is 22 percent. It makes us competitive in the world.”

Roe said the bill also allows someone to capital expense in year one, any investment that is made, and encourages overall economic growth. Along with repatriation of money overseas, which Roe said has allowed companies to bring billions of dollars back to the U.S. economy, the bill offers $4 billion to tackle the opioid epidemic.

“We realize you can’t arrest and incarcerate your way out of it,” Roe said about the opioid epidemic.

In 2016 alone, there were a total of 16,031 opioid related deaths in Tennessee according to Roe. 

“We’ve got to use education – starting in elementary schools – about the dangers of these drugs,” he said. “If you’re treated more than five days with opioids, at least for the data of Tennessee, 10 percent will still be on some opioid a year later. If you get two prescriptions filled, you have a 30 percent chance of still being on opiods a year later.”

The $4 billion in funding will come as grants to the state and Roe said that already in this area there has been talk of an inpatient treatment facility. He said expanding treatment options will be a key component in addressing the epidemic.

The Omnibus Spending Package will also increase military spending by $70 billion dollars, which Roe says is still 20 percent less that what was spent in 2008.

“I wish we didn’t have to spend a nickel on it, but it’s a dangerous world and we have underfunded our military drastically in the last seven or eight years,” said Roe. “This will help get us back up to where we need to be.”

In 2017, Roe said for those on active military duty, four times the amount were killed in training accidents as opposed to actual combat.

“Our equipment is old and worn out, and we have to refurbish that,” he said.

Roe also spoke on President Trump’s attempt to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a program instituted by an executive order from President Barack Obama that protects children brought to the U.S. illegally. 

“We are going to get that done,” said Roe. “I think there are people who want to get DACA done, me being one of them, and there are people who don’t want to get DACA done for political reasons.”

Roe said he believes it will be corrected to three things: more funding for the border wall; ending chain migration; and stopping the VISA lottery.

“That makes no sense to have 55,000 people, and you just draw their name out of a hat and they get to come to the country … I think you need to have some merit basis to come here,” Roe said about the VISA lottery. “There is no other country in the world that allows even the number of legal immigration we do in this country.”

He said 40 percent of people who are residing in America illegally originally came on some sort of VISA, such as a student or work VISA.

“We are going to vote on a bill in the House pretty soon,” Roe said about potential immigration reform.