House VA committee passes host of reforms including cannabis research, Choice funding

Matt Saintsing
May 08, 2018 - 1:37 pm

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Federal lawmakers advanced a bundle of reforms including providing caregiver stipends to families of injured vets, increasing veterans’ access to private medical care and pushing the VA to research medical marijuana, in a burst of votes before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Tuesday.

The major reforms are the latest steps for veterans on a few contentious issues as leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs remains vacant and a bit uncertain.

Nevertheless, the House committee advanced a few important bills out of committee that will now head to the House floor for a vote.

The VA Mission Act

Touted as an overhaul plan to VA’s community care access and passed the committee by a 20-2 vote, it represents a major step forward in an ongoing debate regarding the VA Choice program, which provides $5.2 billion in funding.

Major veterans groups, the VA, and White House have all voiced their support.

"This is a transformational, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform VA, and I am so proud of the strong support this bill received in today’s markup," said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), the committee's chairman. "President Trump has called on Congress to pass this bill before Memorial Day, and today’s vote gets us one step closer to the president’s desk."

“Blue Water” Navy Vietnam Veterans

Unanimously passed by the committee, this bill would expand benefits to nearly 90,000 veterans who served aboard ships in the waters, bays and harbors of Vietnam during the war, but have been unable to prove their exposure to Agent Orange. Troops stationed inland are presumed to have been exposed to the chemical agent and this measure would bring that status in line with Blue Water Navy vets.

Medical Weed

Another bill that passed through the committee with unanimous support would clarify the VA’s authority to research marijuana as a potential treatment for a litany of service-connected ailments that plague suffering veterans. The legislation would also require the VA to submit reports on their research for the next five years.

"The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act answers the call made by over 92% of veterans by authorizing the Department of Veterans Affairs to advance scientific and medical research into the safety and efficacy of medicinal cannabis usage by veterans with diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the committee's ranking member. 

In recent years, the VA has long cited the federal classification of marijuana as a schedule 1 drug as a reason why the agency couldn’t investigate the medical benefits of cannabis. This bill would make that excuse obsolete.

Programs for Women vets

The fastest growing veteran demographic would receive additional programs from the VA, including annual reports on how the department conducts gender-specific medical care.