President George Washington once said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of early wars were treated and appreciated by our nation." As an Army veteran and a member of the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilCon/VA), I have actively been fighting for the 70,000 veterans living in my district since the day I was elected to Congress. I am also proud to serve as Co-Chair of both the Military Mental Health Caucus and the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force.
Ending veterans homelessness: I have worked to gradually increase funding for targeted veterans homelessness programs from approximately $376 million in 2009 to $1.5 billion in 2016. As a member of the MilCon/VA Subcommittee, I fight hard every year to make sure that this money is directed into programs that provide our communities with the necessary resources to help veterans find stable housing and employment. With an ultimate goal of ending veterans homelessness altogether, it is critical we design programs that provide homeless veterans with a path to homeownership. To that end, I introduced a bipartisan bill entitled the Housing our Heroes Act to establish a three year pilot program at the VA that would provide grants to Veterans Service Organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations to purchase and renovate abandoned homes for the purpose of housing homeless veterans. Within one year of placement in a home, the veteran would have the option of making monthly rent or mortgage payments, thus providing them with the option of eventually owning the home. While my bill awaits consideration in the House Veterans Affairs Committee, I was successful in securing a directive in the 2017 VA funding bill (which is now law) that directs the VA to examine the feasibility of this type of program – which ultimately pays for itself – in order to afford veterans the opportunity to work towards responsible homeownership.
Addressing the invisible wounds of war: Access to mental health care for our former servicemen and women has been minimal and too many times veterans who seek treatment for mental health concerns have been denied access at VA hospitals and clinics across the country. I have heard first-hand reports from my constituents in Florida regarding the difficulties they have had receiving mental health treatment through the VA. I have worked to further research and find alternative treatments for the invisible wounds that our soldiers bring home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Specifically, I secured $7.9 billion in mental health funding for the VA for 2017 which will support necessary and life-saving psychiatric treatments and services for our veterans. This includes treatments for those who incurred mental health injuries while fighting in combat, those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as any other traumatic brain injuries they received while serving our country. I also worked to secure $173 million for suicide prevention programs in 2017, which will include a special focus on reducing the alarming rise of female veteran suicides.
Preventing crimes against veterans: Last year, veterans in my district brought to my attention that individuals are advertising themselves to the veterans’ community claiming that, for a fee, they can speed up their claim with the VA. Everyone knows that the claims process at the VA is far too slow, but these predators are deliberately seeking out veterans purporting to speed up this process with their VA claims and then illegally charging them exorbitant fees. Although it is illegal under existing law for anyone who is not an approved agent to charge a fee for helping a veteran with a claim or an appeal with the VA, there is no criminal or financial penalty associated with breaking the law. Therefore, I introduced the Preventing Crimes Against Veterans Act, which will penalize fraudsters that blatantly engage in a scheme to defraud a veteran (or his or her survivor or spouse) of his or her benefits by imposing a fine, imprisonment of up to five years, or both. My bill passed the House with unanimous, bipartisan support in April and Senator Rubio introduced a companion version of my bill in the Senate in September.
Securing VA benefits for victims of Agent Orange exposure: I have supported a change to the law that would force the VA’s hand and secure justice for veterans suffering from health complications as a result of Agent Orange exposure. Specifically, I support requiring the VA to rewrite its claims guidance to include Blue Water Navy Veterans exposed to Agent Orange and blocking implementation of the VA’s unilateral decision to restrict presumptive coverage to those who served on the land or inland waterways of Vietnam.
I firmly believe we have a moral obligation to care for those who served, and will continue holding the VA accountable for providing the very best services possible for our returning war fighters, their families and veterans. Filing a claim or following up with an appeal with the VA can be a daunting task, if you are a veteran and you need assistance with you benefits, please contact my office or visit my Veterans Service webpage by clicking here.