MURFREESBORO — U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais told York VA Medical Center staff members he supports increasing their budget.

“What are your biggest needs from my office or Washington?” the Republican lawmaker asked staff members led by Suzanne Jené, the interim director for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Tennessee Valley Health Care System, which includes the York operation on the far north side of Murfreesboro.

“Money,” Jené told DesJarlais during their Thursday meeting on the medical campus that has about 1,700 employees serving 3,000 visitors per day, including patients, family members, friends, volunteers and students.

“We are going to invest in our veterans and increase the budget,” said DesJarlais, noting he wants this to go beyond just being an election year promise that has been mentioned by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. “We are trying to expand care for our veterans.”

DesJarlais told the administrators that VA funding has tripled since the late 1990s at a time when most other government functions are being cut. The lawmaker worked as a physician in Jasper near his South Pittsburg home before he won his seat in Congress in 2010.

DesJarlais faces competition in the Aug. 4 Republican primary from Murfreesboro attorney Grant Starrett and Faparusi Yomi Sr., another practicing attorney.

Starrett in 2015 raised $917,846 for the 2016 election, including his loan to the campaign of $226,561. Yomi collected $267,485, including loans from himself of $251,700. DesJarlais raised $332,611, according to Federal Election Commission records.

VA wait times

In addition to discussions about funding, DesJarlais and the York VA staff members talked about how wait times for service have improved from recent years when veterans complained about the long delays in getting treatment.

“The majority of what you do is much appreciated,” said DesJarlais, noting that his mother worked as a VA nurse for 44 years in South Dakota. “Serving our veterans is somewhat a labor of love.”

When it comes to more money for VA care, President Barack Obama proposed a $182.3 billion budget in 2017, which is an increase of about $3.6 billion, but Congress will be reviewing details and making adjustments before deciding on the appropriation, DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson said.

After talking to York VA administrators, DesJarlais visited with patients, including Clyde Richmond, who identified himself as a World War II veteran who served with Gen. George Patton’s army.

“How old are you?” DesJarlais asked.

“Twenty-two,” the 100-year-old Richmond quipped. “I can’t complain about the way they treat me here.”

DesJarlais heard a similar comment from VA York patient Gary Leverette of Unionville. Leverette came to York VA Medical Center for his last monthly treatment of chemotherapy for lymphoma for six months.

“I’ve had real good treatment,” said Leverette, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War in 1968-69. “I’ve got no complaints. They have a great nursing staff.”

Bills for veterans

The congressman noted three laws enacted to improve service, including a VA Choice legislation that allows veterans to seek private treatment with VA funds if the VA is unable to see a patient within 14 days for mental health issues and 30 days for other illnesses. The law also permits veterans to seek private care if the nearest VA hospital or clinic doesn’t have the service they need.

The Veterans ID Card Act allows veterans to have a permanent ID card that proves their military service and makes it easier to access services they need and provides better protection from identity theft, DesJarlais said.

He also talked about the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act that seeks to help veterans get access to mental health resources they need.

DesJarlais said Congress is also crafting bills requiring Veterans Affairs to address problems at underperforming hospitals and clinics by deploying specialists to improve services.

Another proposed bill calls for boosting oversight of the VA construction process, DesJarlais added.

York VA is scheduled to add a 10,000-square-foot building by March to provide treatment for mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder, spokeswoman Anna-Marie Ward said.

DesJarlais also mentioned legislation that seeks to extend the length of time for which newborn babies are eligible for VA care by giving spouses more time and flexibility to use GI Bill benefits. The legislation would also close a loophole that leads to exorbitant tuition expenses.

DesJarlais read out loud other proposed bills before the House:

  • Making annual cost-of-living adjustment for veterans automatic.
  • Expansion of the Clay Hunt law by ensuring VA focuses on programs that are most effective for preventing suicide of women.
  • Protection of integrity of the GI Bill by making sure schools meet state-specific criteria for accreditation and certification.

The list DesJarlais read also included House-approved bills before the Senate:

  • Giving VA secretary final authority to recoup bonuses from failed employees, after giving them notice and an opportunity for a hearing.
  • Authorizing a long-term care Veterans Choice Act for the VA to transfer a veteran at their request to a medical foster home that meets VA standards.

Contact Broden at 615-278-5158. Follow him on Twitter @ScottBroden.

DNJ ONLINE

To see videos of U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais talking about York VA Medical Center and the presidential election, search dnj.com.

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