Union Leader: Scott Brown: Platitudes don’t fix the problem, NH veterans need solutions

September 10, 2023

DOING RIGHT by America’s veterans requires providing more freedom and flexibility for their health care options. Unfortunately, some in Congress, including U.S. Representative Chris Pappas (D-NH), are moving in the opposite direction and pushing misguided legislation that would restrict rather than expand veteran choice.

Here’s the backstory. Last year’s PACT Act was a watershed moment, expanding eligibility for health care at the Veterans Affairs (VA) for millions. PACT also increased the strain at the VA, which was already struggling with two decades of war and COVID-19. Last spring, the VA predicted the backlog of claims could balloon as high as 400,000.

Simply throwing more money at the VA will not solve the problem. In fact, the $1.7 trillion dollar omnibus bill passed by Congress earlier this year increased the VA budget to $303 billion — the highest ever in the agency’s history.

Before accessing care, veterans must wade through a daunting thicket of red tape at the VA. It can be a bureaucratic nightmare requiring outside assistance to navigate.

It’s not enough to rely on Veterans Services Organizations (VSO), which are well-meaning, but already overworked and primarily rely on volunteer efforts. Nor are accredited actors assigned by the VA when an appeal has been denied. These lawyers are paid by the VA win or lose, raising questions about their impartiality in disputes. They can also charge higher fees from the veterans if claims go longer than 15 months.

Here’s where consulting agents in the private sector can help. These are professionals trained with extensive expertise. They operate within the constraints of the VA efficiently. And they typically work on a contingency model where they don’t get paid until the veterans receive their benefits. They have only the veteran’s interest at heart because their financial success is linked.

Each April, taxpayers can opt for the IRS to prepare their tax returns for free, but a vast majority of Americans choose private tax agencies like TurboTax or H&R Block. As the federal agency collecting the money, the IRS has less incentive for taxpayers to keep more of their money. Quite the opposite.

Some players in this debate, including Congressman Pappas, denigrate these outside consultants for veterans as “predatory claims sharks.” Pappas has even co-sponsored a bill instituting criminal penalties for those assisting veterans with disability compensation benefits. Others demonize good-faith efforts to improve veterans’ health care as a backdoor attempt to “privatize the VA.”

Not only is this hyperbolic rhetoric divorced from reality, but it also does nothing to help veterans.

To be clear, in a perfect world, veterans would not need professional assistance to access the benefits they have earned. But we do not live in a perfect world and must work within our existing infrastructure. We all remember the 2014 scandal that showed VA officials falsifying records at a medical center in Phoenix, keeping nearly 2,000 veterans on waiting lists more than 100 days long just to get an appointment.

Our country has a long history of using public-private partnerships to achieve great things, including railroads, the space program and Operation Warp Speed. Combining private sector ingenuity and innovation with the full weight and authority of government can be a powerful force for good.

Fortunately, others in Congress are pushing a more comprehensive approach that preserves veterans’ choices while also cracking down on exploitative actors. Called the PLUS for Veterans Act of 2023, the bipartisan bill was introduced in the U.S. House in the spring. Discussions are underway for a Senate companion.

As the only state without a full-service veterans hospital or equivalent access, New Hampshire’s 93,000 veterans already face challenges. Platitudes on Veterans Day or Memorial Day won’t fix the problem. The VA should remain the lead vehicle, but government does not have all the answers, especially with the growing backlog. The private sector has a supporting role to play.

Veterans did not hesitate to fight for our freedom. The least we can do is provide them freedom to access health care.

Former U.S. Senator and Ambassador Scott Brown served 35 years in the Army National Guard, retiring as a colonel in 2024. He lives in Rye.