Rep. Bruce Braley’s (D., Iowa) absences at House Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Committee hearings included meetings where mental health care for veterans was prominently discussed, another potential headache for the U.S. Senate candidate as his campaign allies seek to criticize his Republican opponent on that issue.
Recent polls show that Braley’s standing among likely Iowa voters has suffered due to his record on veterans’ issues. The four-term congressman faced intense scrutiny earlier this year after it was reported that he missed more than 75 percent of the full VA Committee hearings in 2011 and 2012. On the day that he skipped one of those hearings in September 2012, he attended three fundraisers.
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Topics at the VA meetings Braley missed included mental health care access for veterans, the swelling backlog of disability claims, and long wait times. Those issues later emerged as systemic problems at medical centers nationwide, prompting then VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in May.
Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.) said at a hearing on Sept. 20, 2012, that "access to mental health care is in crisis."
"In April, the VA inspector general released a report finding that more than half of the veterans who seek mental health care through VA wait 50 days, that is five zero, 50 days to receive an evaluation," Miller said at the time. "These are men and women who have taken the brave and difficult step of seeking help. They are waiting too long to receive that help."
Peter Gaytan, executive director of the American Legion, said at another hearing on Oct. 3, 2012 —which Braley also missed—that access to mental health care would be a "growing problem" as the number of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars increased. Only a handful of lawmakers attended the joint House and Senate VA Committee hearing that day.
"When it comes to mental health for veterans, in two of the many VA hearings that Congressman Braley skipped, mental health issues were raised over 100 times," said Republican Party of Iowa spokesman Jahan Wilcox in a statement on Tuesday. "Congressman Braley can’t be trusted because he didn’t even bother to show up to numerous VA hearings where mental health was a key topic of the hearing."
The Braley campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Braley’s aides have defended his absences at the hearings by noting that he attended most of his subcommittee meetings on economic opportunities for veterans. The congressman also made sure he was present when votes were taken, they said.
The issue of mental health became a larger flashpoint in the U.S. Senate race this week when two Democratic state lawmakers accused Republican Joni Ernst of taking credit for mental health reform in the state while voting against it. Ernst, a state lawmaker and Braley’s opponent, has praised Republican Gov. Terry Branstad for achieving reform during his administration.
Ernst did vote against a state Senate bill in 2012 that put more control of Iowa’s mental health and disability services system at the state level rather than with individual counties. However, an Ernst spokeswoman told the Des Moines Register that she did not support the final bill because it lacked funding for counties.
Ernst represents District 12 in the Iowa Senate, which encompasses Mills, Montgomery, Fremont, Page, Taylor, and Ringgold counties. Two of those counties—Fremont and Ringgold—lost funding as a result of the bill, and were forced to pay out tens of thousands of dollars more for non-Medicaid services, according to a 2012 report by the nonpartisan group Iowans with Disabilities in Action (ID Action).
Democrats also attacked Ernst for skipping meetings of the state Mental Health and Disability Services Commission. Ernst and other non-voting members of the commission did not regularly attend the meetings, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch.
The U.S. Senate race in Iowa remains one of the tightest contests in the country, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released on Wednesday found that Ernst has a four-point lead in the race overall, including a 48-to-32 percent advantage among independents.