OP-ED: The Providence Journal: Choice is Critical for RI Veterans Seeking Their Disability Benefits by Bob Lancia

May 24th, 2024

Rhode Island is fortunate to call itself home to more than 46,000 veterans. Yet, while they are deserving of our honor and respect, not all of them have been able to access the Department of Veterans Affairs disability benefits to which they are entitled.


Any way you look at it, the system is not working. At a national level more than 295,000 pending claims for VA disability compensation and benefits are considered to be backlogged. Closer to home, veterans in the Ocean State receive disability compensation benefits at a rate several percentage points below the national average.


Against this backdrop, legislators in the General Assembly have launched a well-intentioned, but misguided effort to help alleviate the issue. Two proposed pieces of legislation − H 7609 and S 2700 −would actually do the opposite and could regrettably make it more difficult for veterans to gain access to their hard-earned disability benefits. Specifically, by outlawing the assistance of private consulting agents, lawmakers would limit, rather than expand, the choices veterans have to navigate an arduous process that I have first-hand experience with myself.


While I was fortunate enough to have connected with a case worker at a veteran's service organization (VSO) that had the staff and resources to help secure my benefits, not every veteran has had a similar experience. The support available from VSOs can vary widely depending on where you live and other points of assistance, such as VA-accredited attorneys, who don’t involve themselves until an initial claim has been denied and an appeal is necessary. That’s why private consulting agents have stepped in to help fill the void.


By harnessing the power and incentives of the free market these individuals are able to help veterans start a benefit claim regardless of where they are located and assist with each step of the process. These professionals work on a contingency basis, which means that they do not get paid unless there is a benefit increase for the veteran. They are also equipped with an extensive team and systems to help make the process as efficient as possible.


These businesses, many of which are veteran-owned, have helped returning service members all across the country secure disability benefits. But unfortunately, because current rules do not allow them to gain official recognition from the VA, some state legislatures have looked to criminalize them. While I agree that any unscrupulous private actors should be shut down and charged with criminal penalties, a wholesale ban on private consulting agents will do little to help those who have served.


A better path forward would be to focus on passing a legislative framework that would establish guardrails and regulations for the use of private consulting agents. This could include requiring agents to meet certain qualifications and adhere to ethical standards, implementing clear disclosure requirements, and placing as a cap on their services and fees. Such safeguards have been passed in other states and have provided veterans with the peace of mind of knowing that they are working with reputable agents.


Both in my personal and public life, I have been a tireless advocate for veteran causes. During my time in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, I served on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and fought to exempt military pensions from state income tax, and I continue to advocate for this community today. By providing our veterans with an accessible benefit claims system and empowering them through choice and competition, we can ensure that they receive the support they need to thrive in civilian life and honor their sacrifices.


Read More: The Providence Journal