HOUGHTON - U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek visited the Copper Country Monday, where he held a meet-and-greet with local veterans as part of a tour of the western Upper Peninsula.
Benishek, R-Iron Mountain, sits on the House of Representatives' Veterans Affairs Committee, and this term is chairing its subcommittee on health. Later this week, it will hold a hearing on staffing levels at Veterans Administration hospitals. Benishek said he would look at raising limits on specialty physicians, which he and local veterans said have led to difficulties.
"Sometimes the guys end up being transferred to Milwaukee via the bus - it's a five-hour bus ride to Milwaukee from Iron Mountain," he said in an interview Monday. "Some of the guys come to Iron Mountain, of course, from the Soo, from this area. They've got to drive down to Iron Mountain, and get on a bus for five hours to Milwaukee, go to a 20-minute appointment, then take a five-hour bus ride back. Maybe they could staff that position in Iron Mountain and save those guys 10 hours on the road."
Kurt Hauglie and Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette
Rev. Elmer Liimatta of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Chassell presents a petition to U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek asking for a national cemetery for veterans in the Upper Peninsula.
Another issue is addressing the backlog on veterans disability claims, which Benishek said is up to 18 months.
Monday morning, Benishek met with veterans at American Legion Post 186.
Rev. Elmer Liimatta of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6507 in Chassell presented Benishek with a petition for a national veterans' cemetery in the Upper Peninsula. The petition had more than 2,200 signatures, Liimatta said. Benishek said it's an issue on which he is working.
Veterans also discussed problems such as not being able to receive particular services at local hospitals.
Benishek, who worked for 20 years as a physician at the VA hospital in Iron Mountain, said working with veterans' issues is his favorite part of being a congressman.
"It's important that our men and women who serve have access to the stuff they deserve," he said.
In an addition to Benishek's duties this term, he is sitting on the agriculture committee.
"We can improve the way the Forest Service manages the federal forest to allow for more responsible harvesting of the trees, which would be beneficial for Northern Michigan," he said.
Along with veterans' issues and agriculture, the other opportunity Benishek sees for bipartisan action is on vocational education. Several roundtables were held last year, including one in Houghton, getting input from community members on improving vocational education in the area.
Benishek relayed a figure from Gov. Rick Snyder that 70,000 jobs in the state are unfilled because people don't have the right training.
Benishek said federal dollars are available for educational programs.
"We're working on it from our office, ways to help coordinate the effort between the fed, state, local communities to try to improve that," he said.
The most pressing issue Benishek is working on is the federal sequester, the across-the-board cuts to federal spending programs that started March 1.
Benishek said the biggest obstacle is the Senate's longstanding lack of a budget proposal. The Senate is preparing to introduce a budget this week, its first since 2009.
"I don't expect them to pass a budget that agrees with ours, but they should at least do their job," Benishek said. "It's very frustrating to me, the fact that these guys won't write down and pass something that they believe in. How can we negotiate with them unless they have their position written down on a piece of paper?"
The House passed a plan last week to keep the government funded through the end of the fiscal year; the Senate is working on a separate plan. Benishek is also hopeful because of the No Budget-No Pay Act, which puts Congressional salaries into an escrow account unless both the House and Senate pass a budget resolution by April 15.
"I think we're making some progress in that area, if we can get the Senate to act," he said. "Produce a budget so we start doing things in a bit more logical fashion where we don't have this crisis every three months."