House Veterans Affairs chair Jeff Miller tours Patriot Plaza, talks about VA overhaul bill

SARASOTA -- Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, chairman of the House Veterans Service Committee, toured Patriot Plaza at Sarasota National Cemetery for the first time Friday.

"It is beyond all expectations," he said of the 2,800-seat amphitheater with its jewel-like sea-green roof, and carefully curated art collection celebrating the service of veterans.

"You can hear someone describe it. But to stand here and see how it has transformed the very center of the national cemetery is amazing," said Miller. His visit to Patriot Plaza was hosted by Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, as they both are seeking re-election on Nov. 4.

Miller was not so warm in his praise of the Department of Veterans Affairs and how

it has started implementing a $16.3 billion bill overhauling the VA.

President Barack Obama signed the bipartisan bill, designed to overhaul and improve care for veterans, in August. The measure allows the VA to hire thousands of doctors and other health-care workers, in part, and to fire inept administrators.

Asked how satisfied he was that the VA was making progress to correcting its ills, Miller said the problems are "not even close" to being resolved.

VA's problems didn't happen overnight, and they won't be corrected overnight, Miller said.

"The corruption and lies that were being perpetrated on veterans were found in corners of the agency that no one expected to find," Miller said.

"Even with the law that we passed in July, and the president signed in August, the VA is still not implementing that law as it was intended," he said.

Buchanan promised that Congress will implement all the provisions of the VA overhaul bill. And Miller promised that there will be very pointed questions asked by Congress when it returns to Capitol Hill.

Miller was critical of the VA for allowing poor managers to resign or retire, rather than being summarily fired as allowed by the new bill.

Investigation of the VA showed that while care was shoddy at places like Phoenix, care was excellent in nearby Tucson, a credit to local leadership, Miller said. A nationwide audit showed that VA facilities in Florida performed better than VA facilities in many other states.

"The VA issues were not as pervasive in Florida as elsewhere," Miller said.

Asked about research by Roskamp Institute in Bradenton on Gulf War Illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury, Miller said he wasn't familiar with Roskamp's research. But anyone who is working on PTSD is doing important work.

"PTSD is a real illness that has to be confronted," Miller said. "Mental illness will be one of the most-pressing issues VA will have to contend with for decades."

Buchanan added that the government has made substantial progress with the work being done at Roskamp.

"I feel very good about what they are doing," Buchanan said.

Buchanan suggested to John Rosentrater, administrator of Sarasota National Cemetery, that other cemetery directors from around the country be invited to tour Patriot Plaza. The first of its kind in the country, Patriot Plaza could offer a blueprint for other communities that have national cemeteries.

The amphitheater was built and paid for by The Patterson Foundation, and has an endowment to operate and maintain it. No taxpayer dollars were used. Sarasota National Cemetery is located at 9810 State Road 72.

The Patterson Foundation will be hosting the Veterans Legacy Summit Nov. 14-15, bringing together leaders from the military, philanthropy, government, and more to discuss honoring and benefiting veterans.

Sandy Beckley, the first director of Sarasota National Cemetery, said PTSD will be among the wide range of topics discussed.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.