Since being elected to Congress, and serving as the ranking member on the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health, my top priority has been ensuring that Ventura County's veterans receive quality care in a timely manner.
When I first came to Congress, the Oxnard Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) was understaffed and short on space. I am pleased to report that we've been able to expand the current facility by 4,000 square feet.
The VA also is leasing a new interim facility that is double the size of the original and will include women's health, telehealth, mental health, physical therapy, cardiology, gastroenterology and primary care.
Many of these services the interim clinic will offer have never been provided by the VA in Ventura County.
Long-term, I also will continue to work with the VA, the president, my colleagues and local stakeholders to secure a 48,000-square-foot stand-alone facility staffed by VA doctors — something Ventura County veterans have consistently called for.
Though I am pleased that funding for this facility was included in the president's Fiscal Year 2016 budget request, the funds must still be appropriated and authorized by Congress.
Because of arcane budgeting rules unique to the VA, authorizing new leases is painfully slow.
These delays are harming veterans and preventing the modernization of health care infrastructure in underserved communities.
That is why I recently introduced the Build a Better VA Act, which offers a simple solution to this dilemma: it would streamline the lease approval process for VA medical facilities and bring it in line with the process for leasing other federal buildings.
Another barrier to better VA care is the lack of data related to mental health for our nation's female veterans. This May, the VA released a report detailing the high rates of suicide among female veterans: veteran women are six times as likely as non-veteran women to commit suicide.
In response, I introduced the Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act, which requires the VA to evaluate suicide prevention and mental health programs with women-specific metrics to ensure VA and Congress have a deeper understanding of which programs and approaches work best for female veterans.
Last year, Congress passed the VA Choice Program in response to the wait time crisis in Phoenix. However, the program is not perfect. One necessary fix is related to the so-called "60-day episodes of care" requirement.
Under the current law, veterans could be forced to start treatment and leave midstream if the 60-day authorization for outside care expires. This arbitrary cutoff point threatens patients' access to care, and has made doctors wanting to treat veterans reluctant to sign up.
To address this problem, last week I introduced the Veterans Continuity of Care Act. This legislation would allow the VA to authorize medically-appropriate periods of care.
Another bureaucratic roadblock to serving veterans relates to protecting veterans from fraud. The VA's fiduciary program appoints advisers to protect veterans deemed unable to manage their VA benefits.
At a recent committee hearing, I learned that if the adviser misuses a veteran's benefits, the VA can only reimburse the veteran if the VA-appointed fiduciary manages benefits for at least nine other veterans. It makes no sense, because over 80 percent of beneficiaries in VA's fiduciary program have a personal relationship with their fiduciary.
This means thousands of veterans, who rely on monthly VA benefits for basic living or medical expenses, are unprotected under federal law.
My bill, the Protect Veterans from Financial Fraud Act, would end this unfair practice.
As Ventura County's congresswoman, and as a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, my work serving our veterans has been the most gratifying because I have helped solve real problems facing our nation's veterans. My office also has assisted thousands of veterans through constituent work. As the daughter, sister and niece of veterans, my dedication is personal. As Ventura County's public servant in Congress, my commitment will never waver.
Julia Brownley, of Thousand Oaks, is a member of Congress representing the 26th district.