OP-ED: PennLive.com: Pennsylvania's Veterans Need Choice and Support in Navigating the VA Benefits System

May 15, 2024

America has a sacred duty to care for the men and women who have bravely served in our military, protecting our freedoms and fighting for liberty around the world. Unfortunately, the current support system available to former service members through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced significant challenges in meeting this obligation.

The system is crippled by an underfunded healthcare service and a confusing disability benefits program. Pennsylvania’s veteran community – which numbers over 638,000 and counts itself as the fourth largest of any state in America – has been particularly impacted by these shortcomings. In fact, only 15% of veterans in the Keystone State currently receive VA disability compensation, far below the national average of 23%. This disparity highlights the urgent need for reforms that prioritize the best interests of our veterans.

Legislators in Harrisburg have taken notice and are considering ways that they might be able to alleviate the issue. As part of these deliberations though, it is crucial that they focus on empowering veterans and expanding their access to assistance, rather than limiting their options.

Unfortunately, legislative efforts proposed to date, such as Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1145, won’t help. Veterans often face a highly complex and daunting process when navigating the VA benefits system. Many struggle to understand the intricate rules and regulations, leading to delays, denials, and frustration. As a result, they often turn to outside assistance. Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and VA-accredited Attorneys have traditionally been the primary avenues through which veterans have received assistance. While they provide a valuable service, they are often limited in what they can do.

In the last several years, private consulting agents have stepped in to help fill these gaps. The firms employ experienced staff and have efficient processes to guide veterans through the claims process. Working on a contingency basis, they are incentivized to help veterans secure their maximum benefits, as they only receive payment if the claim is successful. By providing personalized attention and expertise, private consulting agents can alleviate the burden on veterans who may lack the time, knowledge, or resources to navigate the system.

Regrettably, Senate Bill 1145 aims to ban the use of private consulting agents in assisting veterans to secure VA disability benefits. This is because current VA rules do not provide a way for the agency to officially recognize private consulting agents. Instead of restricting veterans’ choices, lawmakers should abandon this bill in favor of legislation to improve ways private consulting agents can help.

This could include mirroring a bill that my former colleagues in Congress are currently considering known as the PLUS for the Veterans Act. It would require agents to meet qualifications, adhere to ethical standards, and provide clear and transparent information about their services and fees. State lawmakers could focus on strengthening Pennsylvania’s ability to enforce laws against unfair practices and punish bad actors, rather than labeling all private sector partners as “exploitative.”

The introduction of choice and competition in public systems has proven successful in various sectors, such as private tax preparation, public-private partnerships in infrastructure, and private ambulance services. The same can be true for navigating the VA disability benefits process. By allowing veterans to choose between Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs), accredited legal representatives, and private consulting agents, we can foster a system that is more efficient, cost-effective, and tailored to the unique needs of each individual.

As the VA continues to face a growing backlog of disability claims, it is now more important than ever to provide veterans with the support they need. Legislators must recognize that limiting veterans’ options, as proposed in Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1145, will only hinder their ability to receive the benefits they deserve. By empowering Pennsylvania’s veterans through choice and competition, we can ensure the best possible outcome for those who have served our nation.

Congressman Dick Schulze previously represented Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional district and chaired the Republican Study Committee. He is also a U.S. Army Veteran and former member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

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