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Tuesday September 2nd 2014

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Taking Care of Veterans

An Interview with Rep. Jeff Miller
By Rick Outzen

Veterans are always on Congressman Jeff Miller’s mind.

He serves Florida’s 1st District—a district that has more veterans than any other district. He also chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which serves as the watchdog over the VA, its $140 billion budget and 300,000 employees.

“When I was first elected in 2001, there were two committees that I felt I needed to be on because of this congressional district—Armed Services and Veterans Affairs,” said Miller. “We have such a big veterans community and I felt I could affect some positive change, like the VA clinics at Corry Field and Eglin AFB.”

Miller is currently the only Florida representative that chairs a House committee, which gives him a seat at the leadership table with the Speaker of the House and Majority Leader for most of the major policy decisions. He is also the only congressman from this district to ever have a full House committee chairmanship.

“While the Veterans Affair Committee may not be attractive to many, it fit me and my desire to work perfectly,” he said in interview at the office of the Independent News. He had just taken part in the Combined Rotary Clubs Veterans Appreciation luncheon.

Rep. Miller talked with the paper about the federal government shutdown that lasted the first 16 days of October. Though the 85 percent of the VA budget was advanced funded on a two-year cycle, veterans were still impacted by the political battle. Miller received a lot of calls from veterans.

“There were only 7,000 out of the VA’s 300,000 employees that were furloughed,” he said. “However, there were other veteran programs administered by other agencies impacted, like training, education and labor.”

However if the shutdown had continued past Oct. 31, disability checks would have been delayed. Rep. Miller said, “The VA had two billion dollars and it takes $4 billion a month to cut disability checks.”

Last February, Miller co-sponsored with Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) H.R. 813, “The Putting Veterans First Act of 2013,” that sought to fully-fund the VA budget for four years to avoid this from happening again.

“Neither side should be able to gain a political advantage by scaring veterans that they are not going to get their disability checks,” said Miller. The bill was passed by his committee. On Oct. 30, Miller and Michaud held a press conference with several veteran support organizations, such as Paralyzed Veterans of America and Military Officers Association of America, in support of it.

“They all agreed to make the passage of the bill their number one issue to prevent this from being used politically in the future,” said the congressman.

What are the other issues facing Veterans Affairs?

Backlog of disability claims: “It is horrendous that anybody should have to wait two or three years,” Miller said. “Right now they are down to a backlog of about 300,000 claims. That’s down from earlier this year.”

Veteran Unemployment: Soldiers are getting out of the service with skills that don’t always transfer over to the civilian job market. Miller said, “We have done some things the past couple years to help market their skills. If you are a combat medic, you should be able to become an EMT. If you’re a truck driver, let us help you go in that direction.”

Transparency: The medical care is very good, according to Miller, but there have been a few problems. “We recently had a few preventable deaths in Memphis. We’ve had some suicides take place because of mental illness. One of the biggest problems I have had with the VA is with transparency—to acknowledge where a problem may exist and let’s work on trying to fix it.”

Miller said the VA bureaucracy is a challenge, regardless of which party controls the White House. He said, “I’m chairman for six years. If I’m harping on the backlog or the mental health provisions, they know they can outlast me. That’s unfortunate because some of this is going to take a ‘sea change’ in the way they do things.”

He is committed to helping our military veterans.

“Taking care of veterans is a cost of war,” Miller said. “It’s difficult to predict but it’s a cost this country should be ready to pay.”