Policymakers are Seeking the Wrong Reforms to the VA Benefits System

Published by Michael Flanagan

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)


When a service member has need of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) services, the common perception is that he presents himself at the VA, states a need, is evaluated and then served if appropriate. If only it were this simple and straightforward.


In reality, the VA is an enormous bureaucracy that behaves like a bureaucracy – impersonally and more often than not in the interest of its own needs.


Sadly, in the case of the VA, this bureaucracy was established to directly serve those that often can no longer help themselves in many ways. This makes the ordinary habits of this huge bureaucracy especially brutal on occasion as they interact with veterans.


Anyone that has had to seek help from the VA can usually report that they are lent a patient ear and a sympathetic smile. However, if they cannot well-articulate both their condition and the correct solution, they are in for long waits, mismanagement of their needs and long-delayed care.


No one intends this, it is merely the nature of bureaucracies. So, over the years, an assortment of “helpers” to the veterans have appeared to make possible more effective interaction with the VA bureaucracy.


In addition to the VA’s own intake officers, there are private attorneys, the Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) and private consultancies – all ready to assist the veteran with the task of navigating the VA.


For many years, the “long pole in the tent” were the Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs). The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the AMVETS (among many others) were very capable of assisting the veteran at the local, post level. Within each post are volunteer Service Officers who are charged with assisting any veteran in dealing with the VA. This service is part of the Congressional Charter each VSO has and, consequently, the VSOs take this responsibility to assist the veterans’ interactions with the VA very seriously.


Unfortunately, the VSOs are rapidly declining in membership. The two largest of these (the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars) are both down a million members each from their post-World War II highs. In many parts of the country the VSO representation is almost non-existent.


While the VSOs have tried to overcome the lack of a “personal touch” in certain areas, they have set up complex on-line presences that are almost as bureaucratic as the VA is. We should thank the VSOs for continuing to try but they are failing in a way that even twenty years ago was unthinkable. Still, the VSOs jealousy guard their past preeminence in this area and work against emerging solutions for the veterans that they do not control. They do this because the Service Officers are VSOs’ best recruiting tool and, when faced with extinction, the VSOs will do most anything to self-perpetuate....


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