Published by DON LOREN
Taking care of America’s veterans is one of the nation’s greatest responsibilities. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) handles three major functions: medical care, benefits and burials/memorials. It’s a massive agency with 360,000 employees, 6,000 buildings, 1,600 health care facilities, 144 medical centers, and more than 1,200 outpatient sites.
The last two decades of war, since 9/11, have produced the greatest number of veterans since the Vietnam era — at least 3.3 million — and many of them require care. The VA has made great progress since a decade ago, when veterans typically waited months for medical appointments. Strong support from Congress, strengthened budgets, improved processes including electronic records, and better coordination between the VA and the Department of Defense (DOD) have reduced a daunting backlog of claims.
Yet, two years of COVID-related complications have slowed that progress. As of last month, roughly 244,000 first-time claims for disability compensation and benefits were considered to be backlogged, meaning still in a “pending” status after 125 days. That will increase with expected claims associated with the Navy’s Vietnam-era “Blue Water” herbicide (Agent Orange) plus long-term effects of exposure to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA received $272 million in the American Rescue Plan to address its claims and appeals processing, but during the pandemic 90 percent of staff at the National Personnel Records Center at the National Archives and Records Administration, the team that helps with processing disability claims, were sent home, slowing progress.
To regain momentum, the VA should make things easier for veterans who file claims — not harder through various proposed congressional reforms, however well-intentioned. The disabilities benefits process is filled with volunteers and other organizations. However, the program itself can be complicated. Among those who can help:
• Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) — These are groups typically staffed by volunteers and they handle everything from assistance with claims filing to medical transportation services to home loan help and death certificates.
• Legal representation and accredited actors — These are typically lawyers recognized by the VA as accredited agents who work on a fee-for-service model.
• Private consulting agents — These agents, similar to VSOs, can help veterans start benefits claims, typically working on a contingency model, which means they do not get paid unless the veteran receives a benefit increase.
• Veterans themselves — Veterans can file their own claims, but it can be a complicated system and many do not have the resources or tools (internet, computer access and time) to make this feasible.
Congress is debating “reforms” regarding who can assist veterans with filing claims. A few bills introduced would prohibit “unaccredited actors” from helping veterans with claims. This effectively rules out private consultants who currently provide assistance to millions of veterans....
Read full article on The Hill.