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October 25, 2014

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As Congress debates VA reform, Rep. Dina Titus spends long nights in committee hearings

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Steve Marcus

FILE: Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV) attends a rally for immigration reform at the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, headquarters Monday, July 1, 2013.

Allegations of shoddy treatment and subsequent cover-ups at veterans hospitals in Phoenix and beyond captivated Congress for a week or two this summer before fading from public interest.

But the story stayed at the forefront of one Nevada lawmaker’s agenda even as it disappeared from the headlines.

Rep. Dina Titus, a Las Vegas Democrat, sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. After the scandal made national news this June, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., ramped up the committee’s actions, from once-a-week hearings on various veterans issues to twice-weekly marathon sessions focused on the scandal’s fallout.

For Titus, that’s meant an entire summer of late-night hearings, often stretching to 1 a.m., and hours of extra work. But she doesn’t mind the Republican initiative. She says she’s used the extra meetings to make life better for Nevada’s veterans.

“It’s not just for show on the committee,” she said. “We follow up, and we’ve seen the results of it.”

Late, “eerie” nights in the Capitol

In a series of about 10 hearings in seven weeks, lawmakers have heard from top VA officials, including its acting chief, on problems ranging from bureaucratic mismanagement in VA hospitals, to scrutinizing how the VA gives bonuses, to assessing how to protect whistleblowers in the agency.

The hearings often start Monday evenings after the House of Representatives holds votes. Titus flies in from Las Vegas on Monday afternoon, heads to the House floor to vote and then at 7:30 p.m. crosses the street from the Capitol to the hearing room, where she’ll sit for three, four, five hours at a time.

“You don’t eat dinner,” she said. “You try to get a Snickers bar so you don’t turn into a diva.”

The hearings often run so late that she and an aide were once locked out of their office because the guards had gone home.

“It’s eerie,” she said.

Tuesday morning the rest of Congress swings into action. Later in the week, Titus repeats the process all over again with a second Veterans Affairs hearing (this time during normal business hours).

Drawing attention to Nevada’s veterans

Unlike other House committees, the Veterans Affairs Committee isn’t known for its partisan reputation. But these recent hearings have been charged with tension and urgency.

Playing out in the background is a bill Congress hopes to pass by the end of this week to reform VA hospitals. Lawmakers announced a deal Monday, which Congress will try to approve before closing Friday for a five-week break. Titus sent a letter last week to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, requesting Congress stay in session until they pass the legislation.

The Senate is also expected this week to confirm Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the next VA chief after the last stepped down amid the scandal.

With all of that in mind, each lawmaker gets about 10 minutes to ask witnesses questions during the hearings.

Titus often asks about Nevada-specific issues. She’s asked VA officials to paint a clearer picture of how the agency’s Reno office serves Las Vegas veterans, and she’s called attention to claims backlogs for Nevada veterans, who have some of the nation’s longest wait times.

She and her staff also hold meetings behind the scenes with top VA officials to follow up on questions that come up at the hearings.

“The more you hear, the more you realize you don’t know,” she said.

Seeing results

The hearings may have only scratched the surface of the VA’s problems, but Titus said she’s happy with how they have helped Nevada’s veterans.

The troubled Reno office is in the process of a leadership change thanks in part to her and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.’s, efforts.

And three of her proposed bills were included in the bipartisan VA reform legislation announced Monday: To add medical residency positions at VA hospitals, to extend sexual trauma counseling for National Guard and other reserve members and to expand a portion of the GI bill to surviving spouses.

“I definitely think it’s worth it,” she said.

Maybe Congress should work twice as hard all the time.

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