BOSTON HERALD: VA Reform Should Not Punish Veterans by FMR. Representative Lincoln Davis

April 29, 2023

When I served in Congress during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reforming the Veterans Administration was a hot button issue. It still is.

While my fellow Democrats and Republicans across the aisle worked hard to oversee and fund America’s second largest government agency only behind the Defense Department, it was a challenge to more effectively support 18 million veterans who served our nation proudly.

Though I’m glad to see VA budgets increase to record levels over the past several years under both the Trump and Biden administrations, having served on the House Appropriations Committee, I know that simply allocating more dollars doesn’t necessarily yield better results.

With America $31 trillion in debt and growing, government spending must be trimmed if the country is going to survive. Finding ways to do that are painful, yet essential.

Yet the major VA reforms under discussion today are a nightmare for veterans and should be redirected into better ideas.

The first is so-called “means testing” in order to receive disability benefits. This proposal surfaced in a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report in December 2022.

According to the report, roughly 5 million veterans receive those benefits. Yet of those, 1.5 million would exceed the income threshold for full benefits as outlined. In 2024, the proposed household gross income threshold is $125,000. In the Congressional district I represented in rural Tennessee, that money might go a long way, but it’s relatively little to support a family along most of the Pacific Coast, Northeast and Rocky Mountain states all suffering through sky high real estate prices.

While the VA’s disability index may be complex, in plain English we’re looking at significantly reduced if any benefits to include for loss of arms and legs if those veterans or their working spouses exceed the income threshold. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), in 2019 there were over 96,000 veterans with amputations. Who wants to tell them?

Though I’m not sure Congress has the votes to make it a law right now, “means testing” is gaining traction nationally — to include being pushed by The Washington Post editorial board.

Second is a proposal to place severe restriction on veterans’ choice for filing disability claims. While this isn’t as egregious as directly cutting benefits, it does have a better chance of becoming law soon.

Though intentions are good, a handful of Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate are seeking to limit who can file claims on behalf of veterans.  The stated rationale is to eliminate scammers for taking advantage of veterans through predatory business practices.

Under the current system, there are four categories of those who can file claims: (1) VA accredited attorneys. (2) Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs). (3) Private Consultants. (4) Veterans themselves, aided by a “VA hotline” number and on-line application.

VA accredited attorneys work on a fee-for-service basis and get involved when a claim is denied or must be appealed. They get paid by the VA whether they win or lose, and continue to charge legal fees which can exceed the cost of medical care.

VSOs are mostly staffed by volunteers. With over 200 organizations today, many spend vast resources to help with claims, to include initiating the claims process.

Private consultants are often veterans who have successfully navigated the complex VA health care system and then help other veterans. They work on a contingency basis and only get paid if the claims are approved or increased.

Veterans can also file their own claims.  Though it’s a long and bureaucratic process that requires unlimited access to the phone, computer and internet or close proximity to a VA hospital. Service-related disabilities make it harder, if not impossible for many.

Proposed reforms detailed in the GUARD Act now before Congress would restrict these categories — limiting options to just VA accredited attorneys and the veterans themselves.  Private consultants would be banned. So would those smaller and mid-size VSOs without the money to hire claims attorneys already accredited by the VA.

Though by fixing one problem – thwarting scammers, this would create bigger problems for veterans who will have even more trouble getting health care.

A better solution seems to be the newly released PLUS Act recently discussed in the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. This bill would reform the VA’s accreditation process itself to include private consultants who don’t need a law degree to help vets. That extra layer of vetting would help protect veterans from scams while also not hurting them by limiting options.

Veterans deserve the best care our nation can provide. For all their sacrifices, it’s the least we can do.  And while VA reform remains necessary, veterans shouldn’t be punished for it.

Lincoln Davis is a former Democratic U.S. representative from Tennessee.

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