STARS AND STRIPES: VSOs should back a PLUS Act that gives vets options By David Cook

December 6, 2023

Disabled veterans are not stupid. Why are some members of Congress and even some Veteran Service Organizations acting like they are?

It’s no secret that the Department of Veterans Affairs has its challenges. I’m not here to attack the VA or the men and women who work there for all the right reasons. The department certainly has hurdles to overcome, from a six-figure backlog of disability claims to a ballooning budget to infrastructure and staffing issues. At the end of the day, we are grateful that our federal government dedicates massive resources to the cause of protecting and caring for those who have made untold sacrifices for our country.

That doesn’t change the fact that the process for claiming disability benefits is onerous, time-consuming and fraught with uncertainty. There are currently 1.1 million pending claims, each with an average wait time of 132 days. That’s roughly four and a half months for a basic claim. That is simply unacceptable — and our veterans deserve better. Love it or hate it, the VA’s status quo simply cannot continue, especially with the crises of mental health, homelessness, addiction, and the alarming rate of veteran suicides, averaging 16.8 deaths per day, which continues to afflict our nation’s heroes.

A big part of the problem is the lack of accredited resources available to disabled veterans who are attempting to navigate the VA. This has been the subject of an ongoing debate in Washington, where some big-name VSOs are fighting a proposal, the Preserving Lawful Utilization of Services (PLUS) Act, that would accredit private companies that assist veterans in preparing and submitting their disability claims to the VA.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars has led this fight against PLUS, arguing that disabled veterans are being tricked into paying for such support, and that these private “claims sharks” exist only to defraud veterans and take their money. Earlier this year, Kristina Keenan, deputy director for the VFW’s National Legislative Service, stated under oath: “If a company is able to be accredited or their individuals are able to be accredited, then they are part of the VA oversights, and the VFW would support that.” I agree with her testimony before Congress — that we should accredit more organizations to bear more of the VA backlog burden. Let’s accredit these private companies, regulate them to protect veterans from the real sharks, and put newly accredited organizations under the jurisdiction of the VA for prosecution if they are, indeed, defrauding veterans.

Another prominent VSO seems to agree. While the American Legion has expressed its opposition to PLUS, the organization’s executive director, Chanin Nuntavong, hit the nail on the head: “If an individual wants to go to a private organization for help, they should be able to do so. But I do believe these organizations should be accredited through VA — and punishable by law — if they don’t meet the right standards.”

This is exactly the shape of the PLUS Act compromise: Veterans are free to decide the best option for themselves, with crucial safeguards in place for newly accredited actors. A true “shark” would not stand up to the scrutiny of accreditation, while ethical actors would be allowed to operate and compete on cost and quality. Free services, including volunteer support from VSOs, would remain an option for any veteran who chooses to use them.

It is notable that after its comment in support of accredited private actors, the American Legion hastily put out a statement condemning PLUS. Officials are playing politics to confuse veterans into opposing legislation that does nothing more than offer us additional choices.

The Legion had it right the first time. With a backlog of over 313,000 disability claims (and rising), we need more options, not less. And we need to ensure the companies that enter the marketplace are vetted, accredited and scrutinized by the VA. The current system is not working, and the sooner the broader veteran activist community coalesces around a sound regulatory framework, the sooner we can have a system where disability claims are processed swiftly and competently, with harsh penalties for those who seek to take advantage of America’s veterans.

It’s time to stop playing politics and start speaking the truth: The problem is a lack of options for veterans; they’re smart enough to make their own decisions without the government dictating their options to them. We trained and trusted these men and women with our nation’s defense, can’t we trust them to make their own choices?

David Cook is executive director of the Special Operations Association of America. Read article here