Like many who run for re-election, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis says he has unfinished business.
But unlike many who say that, Bilirakis has specific goals in mind. High on that list of goals is health care for veterans.
“Veterans are top on my list,” Bilirakis said Thursday. “These are our heroes.”
Bilirakis has already helped usher through the Cover and Promise acts. Both laws are designed to open up alternative and complementary therapies, such as service dogs, to veterans who need mental health care. The acts also provide former armed services personnel with the opportunity to choose a therapy.
“I think that veterans should have [the option] to go see a physician of their choice, whether it’s in the VA or out of the VA,” Bilirakis said.
Now Bilirakis is working to get the so-called Open Act passed. That act is designed to address treatment for rare diseases. In some case, Bilirakis said, a drug is designed for one illness but can also be used “off label” to cure or help with another. One such example, Bilirakis said, is a leukemia drug that shows promise for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Under the Open Act, pharmaceutical companies would be given an incentive to perform clinical trials of the usefulness of their drugs for a specific disease. The incentive, or reward, would be an extra six months’ that the company would have exclusive distribution rights for the drug.
Other issues related to veterans’ health care also need to be fixed, he said.
Among those issues is time – the time it takes for a veteran to be seen, then to be treated, then to get a disability rating. Veterans shouldn’t have to wait, he said. That’s especially true when mental health is at issue.
Bilirakis referred to a Veterans Administration study that showed an average of 20 veterans across the nation commit suicide each day. That shouldn’t happen, he said.
“They need to be seen timely,” Bilirakis said. “What about the invisible wounds?”
Veterans should be seen earlier, he said. The VA and the Department of Defense need to work together more effectively to get veterans what they need whether it’s job training, health care, or mental health care.
“The DOD doesn’t talk to the VA. The VA doesn’t talk to the DOD,” Bilirakis said. “There’s a disconnect.”
Bilirakis said he gets many of his ideas from listening to his constituents and to others. That’s why a Post Office in the small town of Elfers is about to be named after a Viet Nam veteran. A Veterans of Foreign Wars post asked him for help in honoring the vet. Bilirakis agreed.
“This is the kind of stuff I like to work on,” he said. “It’s not high profile [but] it has big impact.”
Bilirakis, a Republican, has represented Florida’s 12th Congressional District since 2006. The district covers northern Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and all of Pasco. He’s serving as a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and vice-chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Before being elected to Congress, Bilirakis served four terms in the state House of Representatives, from 1998 to 2006.
He’s facing a challenge from Democrat Robert Tager, a lawyer.
The election is Nov. 8.