U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th Congressional District, emphasized efforts he’s making on behalf of veterans during a recent appearance at a North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce meeting.
The congressman indicated “a top priority” is fighting to improve and expand veterans’ health care benefits and offerings.
“The veterans are a big deal for me,” said Bilirakis, the featured guest speaker at the chamber’s August luncheon at Fox Hollow Golf Club, in Trinity.
Bilirakis, who serves as vice chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, outlined several pieces of legislation that would provide veterans “the health care they deserve.”
One such bill that he’s introduced — Protection for Veterans Burn Pit Exposure Act of 2018 (HR 6582) — would allow veterans exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan to immediately access the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) medical care and disability benefits by providing a presumption of service connection.
Bilirakis cited a correlation between burn pit exposure causing cancer, and other lung and respiratory problems.
The VA currently does not recognize toxic burn pit exposure as a contributing factor to the development of such illnesses.
He compared the burn pit issue to veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange in earlier wars and died while the VA took decades to study its effects.
“A lot of heroes are coming home and they’re sick — some have passed away,” Bilirakis said. “I don’t want to see another Agent Orange issue.”
Ensuring veterans’ access to dental care is another undertaking, the congressman said.
Last year, Bilirakis introduced the Veterans Early Treatment for Chronic Ailment Resurgence through Examinations (VET CARE) Act, to require the VA to put in place a four-year pilot program providing dental care for veterans.
Current law places limitations on the availability of dental care for veterans through the VA. Access to VA dental care is primarily restricted to patients with a 100 percent disability rating, former prisoners of war, and a few special exceptions.
“Right now, it’s extremely limited,” Bilirakis said of veterans’ access to dental care, noting such preventive health care could result in lower overall health care costs for the VA.
“We want to make sure every veteran, ultimately, has an opportunity to get dental care,” he said.
“First of all, we’ve got to take care of our veterans. Secondly, we’re going to save money on the backend — if we take care of our veterans,” Bilirakis said.
Since 2015, he has partnered with the West Pasco Dental Association and Pasco-Hernando State College to highlight the need for VA dental care, and to provide free treatment for local veterans at the Stars, Stripes and Smiles event.
Bilirakis also mentioned the need for wholesale improvements to the VA’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP), which helps veterans reintegrate into civilian life.
Said Bilirakis: “It takes what, six months to train a soldier, and then, they get a week in the TAP program? That’s not enough to get them back into society, find them jobs and treat any issues they may have.”
Remedying some of those problems within TAP are already in progress.
Last month the House passed the Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Bill” Mulder (Ret.) Transition Improvement Act (HR 5649), which would provide grants to organizations that deliver veteran job readiness services, such as resume building and interview training, while connecting veterans with businesses in their community.
Bilirakis also touched on some of his other legislative priorities — mental health, the opioid crisis and improving care for people with congenital heart disease. He also stressed the importance of increased bipartisanship “for the good of the country.”
Bilirakis receives award
During the luncheon, Bilirakis also received the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Spirit of Enterprise Award, which he received in recognition of his support of pro-growth policies in the first session of the 115th Congress.
The annual award was given to 249 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 48 members of the U.S. Senate.
During the first session of the 115th Congress, the Chamber scored members on seven Senate votes, including those on tax reform legislation and the confirmation of Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch; and 14 House votes, including votes on tax reform legislation, access to Medicare, and lawsuit abuse. Various votes in support of small businesses were scored, too.
Members who supported the Chamber’s position on at least 70 percent of those votes qualify to receive the award; Bilirakis had a 93 percent voting record.
“I guess I earned it,” Bilirakis said of the award. “I’m a pro-business guy, I’m a small business guy, and, I know that these tax breaks are going to really do a lot,” he said.
“We want you to grow, we want you to innovate, and hire more employees at a higher rate. Things are going good right now, and we have to keep it going,” Bilirakis said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business federation representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors and regions, as well as state and local chambers and industry associations.
Published August 15, 2018