One of the nation’s most important responsibilities is to care for America’s veterans. Medical care, benefits, and burials/memorials are the three main functions of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). With 360,000 employees, 6,000 buildings, 1,600 health care facilities, 144 medical centers, and over 1,200 outpatient sites, it’s a massive organization.
Since 9/11, the United States has produced the most veterans since the Vietnam War era — at least 3.3 million — and many of them require care. Since a decade ago, when veterans had to wait months for medical appointments, the VA has made significant progress. Strong congressional support, increased budgets, improved processes, including electronic records, and better coordination between the VA and the Department of Defense (DOD) have all helped to reduce a massive backlog of claims.
However, COVID-related complications have slowed that progress over the last two years. Around 244,000 first-time disability compensation and benefits claims were backlogged as of last month, meaning they were still in the “pending” status after 125 days. Expected claims related to the Navy’s “Blue Water” herbicide (Agent Orange) used during the Vietnam War, as well as long-term effects of exposure to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, will increase this. The VA received $272 million from the American Rescue Plan to help with claims and appeals processing, but 90 percent of staff at the National Personnel Records Center at the National Archives and Records Administration, which assists with disability claims processing, were sent home during the pandemic, slowing progress.
To regain momentum, the VA should make it easier for veterans to file claims, rather than making things more difficult through various proposed congressional reforms, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Volunteers and other organizations play an important role in the disability benefits process.
Congress is debating “reforms” that would limit who can help veterans file claims. A few bills have been introduced that would make it illegal for “uncredible actors” to assist veterans with their claims. This effectively eliminates the use of private consultants, who currently assist millions of veterans.
The proposed changes would limit a veteran’s options and leave the claim initiation phase to VSOs, accredited actors, or veterans themselves, despite the intention of preventing potentially unscrupulous individuals from taking advantage of veterans. While VSOs are staffed by well-intentioned and qualified individuals, many lack the manpower to handle the expected inflow of claims. Predatory practices should be stopped, but not at the expense of those who act in good faith and help veterans successfully.
Expanding the accreditation and vetting system to increase the number of certified entities might be a better solution. Another issue is that access to competent, certified VSOs/NSOs varies by state. For example, in Virginia, I had to drive three hours to meet with a VSO who was assisting me with my claim — a seven-year process from start to finish. Montana, for example, is even larger and more rural than the rest of the Plains, posing serious challenges for some veterans.
By vetting a larger claims assistance base, a privatized option in a public system that has produced excellent results in the past could be created. Many people in the United States choose to have their taxes done by a professional accountant. Across the country, private ambulances supplement municipal ambulance services.
Well-intentioned reforms must address veterans’ needs and protect them from fraud while also assisting in the fair, expeditious, and compassionate resolution of their claims. Limiting their options seems counterproductive, especially with a slew of new claims on the horizon. In the end, veterans’ claims assistance should not be limited by Congress.