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New White House budget threatens access to veteran benefits

Veterans salute at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Nov. 11, 2015. (Photo by Spc. Brandon C. Dyer)

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To use their healthcare benefits, veterans are required to successfully navigate one of the most complex and least user-friendly bureaucracies around.  The Veterans’ Administration (VA) has been underfunded for years as it continues to suffer from insufficient hospitals and a broken, backlogged benefits system. 

The VA consists of over 412,000 employees (plus contractors), 6,000 buildings, including 1,600 health care facilities, 144 medical centers and more than 1,200 outpatient sites. The last two decades of war have produced the greatest number of veterans since the Vietnam era, putting additional stress on an increasingly complex system that has also been plagued with scandal, overwork and disappointment. 

For example, of the roughly 520,000 pending VA claims for disability compensation and benefits, 191,000 are considered to be backlogged (defined as older than 125 days). Exacerbated during the pandemic, much of the important work at the National Personnel Records Center at the National Archives and Records Administration (the team that helps with processing disability claims) was stopped and 90% its staff were sent home.

Historically assistance and instruction for the individual veteran has been provided by VA intake officers, Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) and internet instruction for self-help.  Unfortunately, all of these avenues have proven inadequate to the challenge.

The VA continues to fight an increasing backlog making their direct assistance all but entirely a thing of the past. The on-line instructions are wholly inadequate for the average veteran because of the innate complexity of the system on a par with the IRS. The VSOs have always been the long pole in this tent but their shrinking membership, service disparities given the state you live in, and ever-lowering visibility in the community makes their assistance less and less the effective stopgap they once were. 

Over that last decade, private consulting agents who work on a contingency basis have become an effective private sector solution to this lack of this assistance for veterans. These are non-government actors that, similar to VSOs, can help veterans work through benefits claims and assist in each step of the process. They typically work on a contingency model which means they do not get paid unless there is a benefit increase for the veteran. As is the case with a most private enterprise, these consultants have extensive staff expertise and systems in place to be as efficient as possible.

Much like hiring an attorney to assist in the process, the veteran gets the same help from these consultants at a fraction of the cost of lawyers and on a success-fee basis. To safeguard against fraud or incompetence, these consultants must be accredited by the VA to provide these services.  

Government bureaucrats preparing the Biden Administration’s VA budget request have included a prohibition of these consultants from being able to be accredited. This prohibition is a revival of a failed attempt by Montana Senator Steve Daines in the last Congress to eliminate the consultants from the process of providing individual assistance to veterans.  

Whether this proposal is rooted in a desire to protect attorneys and their hourly fees (attorneys are not similarly prohibited by the VAs proposal), punish private enterprise looking to supplant a bloated and inefficient government bureaucracy or just a desire to stop being showed-up by an efficient and helpful organization; the proposal is misguided and completely without any consideration for the long-suffering veteran. 

These types of consultants are all but essential in other interactions citizens have with our government.  From private tax preparation to private ambulance services and a host of others; private companies providing direct services to citizens to assist in their interactions with government are as common as they are often indispensable. 

Considering the backlogs to initial intake for new claims alone, the VA should be looking to streamline and expand the levels of private assistance to its own inability to do this important task. There are ways to ensure that these consultants remain reliable, capable and effective. Simply eliminating them is a lazy, non-solution to what is largely a non-problem. 

In proposing this legislative change, the Biden VA and others in Congress cite the high costs and challenges to accrediting, overseeing and occasionally policing private consultants. Basically, the VA says they can’t advise and assist the veteran on their own but allowing private help is too difficult to accept. Congress should reject the tired bureaucratic whine of “too hard” and insist that they continue to accept this private help, get over themselves and get better at integrating it successfully.  

In Congress, I sat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, previously I served in the Army, and I am a member of the American Legion – one of the main VSOs providing this non-government assistance to the veterans. In my opinion, the need for private consultants supplementing an inadequate bureaucracy, over stressed VSOs and expensive attorneys is not only preferable but necessary. 

The VA can and should do better and needs to drop this budgetary request and embrace private help to its government mission.  

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Congressman Mike Flanagan (U.S. Army, Retired) represented the 5th District of Illinois in the historic 104th Congress. He sat on the Committees on the Judiciary, Government Reform and Oversight, and Veterans’ Affairs.