OP-ED: The State Journal: Kentucky's Veterans Deserve Expanded Access, Choice by Jo Ann Orr

May 17, 2024

Today, Kentucky’s veterans face a number of challenges when returning home. Physical and mental health injuries sustained from combat, economic and employment difficulties due to a mismatch of military skills in the civilian job market, and homelessness driven by a combination of financial instability and a lack of affordable housing are just a handful of the pressing issues returning soldiers face as they transition from the frontlines to the home front.

A confluence of outside factors has unfortunately created these hardships, but one thing that should not be difficult is accessing the hard-earned Veterans Affairs (VA) resources that exist to help overcome these challenges. Unfortunately, that is not the case today and the time has come for Kentucky lawmakers to do their part in helping to resolve the issue.

As a service-disabled veteran myself, I can attest to the fact that navigating the VA system to access benefits and services can be a complex and frustrating ordeal. The process is notoriously cumbersome, fraught with bureaucratic intricacies that can deter even the most resilient among us and compound the stress of readjusting to civilian life. As the backlog of pending claims for VA disability benefits continues to tick up and the number of claims grow as injuries associated with exposure to toxic burn pits and the Navy’s “Blue Water” herbicide unfortunately begin to increase, Kentucky’s more than 233,000 veterans find themselves falling behind.

In fact, veterans in the state receive VA disability compensation at a rate below the national average, underscoring the need to enlist as much outside help as possible to see their way through the VA benefits claims process. Recognizing this, many veterans have historically sought assistance from veterans’ service organizations (VSOs) and VA-accredited attorneys. However, these existing resources are not without their limitations.

VSOs can be an important partner in the process, and one that I was fortunate enough to connect with when I was filing my disability claim, but are largely powered by volunteers and stretched thin across a range of services. As a result, many veterans may find them unable to keep up as the demand for assistance in filing VA benefits claims continues to grow. Attorneys, meanwhile, usually come into play only at the appeals stage and operate under a compensation structure that pays them more the longer a claim goes on. This demonstrates the kind of backwards regulations and incentives currently in place that could potentially delay the process further.

Amidst these challenges, the private sector has stepped up, offering a pathway to simplify and expedite the claims process for veterans. Specifically, private consultants operating on a contingency fee basis have been instrumental in navigating the complex VA system, ensuring veterans receive the benefits they deserve without any upfront costs and providing an option for veterans in areas with no access to VSOs.  

Their success is notable, but given the fact that the VA does not currently provide a pathway for private consultants to gain accredited status, some states view these actors with suspicion and have considered legislation that would criminalize them simply because they earn a commission in the process of helping a veteran. This mistaken, albeit well-meaning, desire to protect our veterans is understandable, but there is a better path forward.

This past legislative session, representatives considered a bill that contrary to these restrictive measures would regulate the helpful role that private sector consultants can play in the VA disability claims process and add additional consumer protections by providing a robust legislative framework for their ethical and effective use. While House Bill 39 passed the lower chamber with near unanimous support, it unfortunately did not find its way out of the Senate before this most recent legislative session ended. When leaders in Frankfurt reconvene next session, elected officials should work to pass these reforms to show that Kentucky can set the precedent for how states can innovatively support their veterans.

At the end of the day, the well-being of our veterans is a bipartisan issue that transcends political divides. The obligation to serve our veterans with the dignity and support they deserve is a cornerstone of our societal values, particularly in Kentucky, and together we can ensure that they receive the support they need and deserve.

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