THE HILL: Congress Should Not Restrict Care For Veterans — Deficit Be Damned by Ret. Col. Preston McLaughlin

May 29, 2023

As the national debt ceiling negotiations in Washington reached a fever pitch again this year, health care for veterans took center stage.

In an effort to curb the soaring $31 trillion in U.S. debt, last month House Republicans passed a bill along partisan lines, 217-215, to cut 22 percent from the Department of Veterans Affairs budget. While their message was clear that money alone doesn’t necessarily fix problems in bloated bureaucracies, the bill probably can’t pass the Senate, let alone overcome a White House veto.

Yet there’s one recently introduced piece of bipartisan legislation that helps veterans on health care and has a much better chance of becoming law.

Earlier this month, a group of House Republicans led by Reps. Jack Bergman of Michigan and Nancy Mace of South Carolina were joined by Democrat Lou Correa of California to co-sponsor the PLUS for Veterans Act of 2023. Their goal is to safeguard the ability of veterans to maintain multiple options and avenues of assistance when applying for VA health care benefits.

The bill pushes back on several years of Washington insider attempts to severely curtail who can file claims for benefits on behalf of veterans. It’s a major issue — out of 18 million veterans, over 5 million currently receive some disability assistance from the government

The long-term impacts of toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan will surely add to this number. So will the PACT Act of 2022, prompted by the Camp Lejeune Toxic Water issue. Waves of veterans filing for benefits are sure to come.

Under current law, veterans have four options for pursuing disability claims. The first is to do it by themselves, aided by a VA hotline number. The second is to seek assistance from VA-accredited and funded attorneys. The third is to get help from veterans service organizations. The fourth involves private businesses, typically owned by service-disabled veterans.

Various bills introduced in both the Senate and House over the past few years have sought to trim that down to two options: just veterans by themselves and through VA-accredited attorneys. If veterans service organizations can afford to hire those pricey attorneys on staff, they’d technically fall under the second category and still be legal. In this scenario, smaller and mid-size veterans service organizations without giant budgets would be prohibited from helping veterans with disability claims, thus taking away a major reason they exist and shuttering many small businesses run by veterans.

The PLUS Act is also designed to protect veterans from fraud, abuse and bad actors who seek to take advantage of them when they seek VA disability benefits. Yet it also keeps all four basic options open as basic VA accreditation is simplified and expanded.

Keeping current choices on the table for veterans to file claims is important because navigating the VA system can be difficult, if not impossible for many. As a retired Marine colonel with over 27 years of active duty service and service in two wars, I am often asked by fellow veterans in my previous units to provide documentation of service for those seeking benefits.

I am often contacted by veterans of Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom to assist them with letters of documentation when filing for disability and other benefits. It can be a long and arduous process, speaking from personal experience. And with various required re-certifications and lack of VA responsiveness, even when all the paperwork may be correct and completed on time, just because a veteran receives benefits today is no guarantee he or she will tomorrow.

We should applaud Bergman, Correa, and Mace (the first woman to graduate from my alma mater, The Citadel) for putting disabled veterans first and co-sponsoring this bipartisan bill.

Congress should rally to support our veterans with the health care and assistance they have earned. It must be a priority for the country.

Ret. Col. Preston McLaughlin, USMC, served for over 27 years, including in Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. In retirement, he has taught in national security affairs at The Citadel, U.S. Army War College and Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

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