WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Veterans should be allowed to use private services to get benefits by Bob Smith
December 16, 2023
During my time serving as a U.S. senator, many New Hampshire veterans contacted my office seeking help in navigating the complex and confusing process of filing a claim for disability benefits with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Years have passed since I left the Senate, but the VA has failed to fix this broken system. The claims process is still excruciatingly bureaucratic, and veterans are still waiting far too long to get their benefits or are getting less than they deserve.
Right now, the agency faces a sizable claims backlog — those waiting more than 125 days for a decision — of more than 300,000. And that backlog is expected to continue rising over the next year.
At the same time, the VA’s system is plagued with errors. According to VA data , in the last year at least 13% of initial rating determinations were found to have serious errors, representing almost 250,000 claims.
I proudly served in the U.S. Navy Reserve and was on active duty from 1965 to 1967, including a year stationed in Vietnam. I saw firsthand the sacrifices made by our nation’s finest. So it is particularly heartbreaking for me to see our disabled veterans being treated so poorly by the government they served to protect.
Veteran Service Organizations, including American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and others, have been given the primary duty of shepherding disabled veterans through the VA’s benefits claims process. While they are well-intended and many do great work, the reality is that they can’t keep up with the demand. Particularly since the passage of the PACT Act last year, a bill that significantly expanded disability benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances during their service, VSOs have been overwhelmed by veterans’ need for help.
Thankfully, there are some in the private sector who have found innovative ways to help these veterans get what they deserve. For the past decade, an entire industry of private services has developed to help veterans navigate the VA’s difficult and complex process. These companies, many run by veterans and former VA employees, guide veterans in completing their paperwork, connecting them with doctors to conduct needed medical exams, and ensuring filed claims are thorough and accurate. In the same way many of us hire an accountant or tax preparer such as H&R Block to navigate the IRS as we file our taxes, these private services are being hired by veterans to navigate the VA.
Their work is reducing the number of errors made in ratings determinations and helping veterans avoid the need to hire an expensive attorney to appeal incorrect VA decisions. And they are also helping the VA and taxpayers. When a veteran files a thorough and accurate claim, the amount of time and paperwork the VA needs to expend in review is reduced, allowing the agency to more quickly make a decision and shrinking the claims backlog. Further, when a veteran sees an outside doctor for their medical exam, that frees up VA doctors to provide more care for other veterans. At the end of this process, when the veteran receives an accurate rating, the veteran’s satisfaction with the VA also increases.
Despite all of these benefits, some in Congress, along with several VSOs, have attacked and demonized the private industry, arguing that its members are bad actors who overcharge veterans. Lawmakers have even proposed legislation that would make it a crime for private companies to help veterans. While I share the desire to stamp out bad actors, it would be a mistake to implement such a blanket ban on these services, many of which are doing great work for veterans and the VA.
The better answer is another bill recently introduced, the bipartisan PLUS for Veterans Act , which would allow ethical private sector companies to become accredited with the VA, while capping fees on initial claims and setting up guardrails to protect veterans from fraud.
Veterans have been forced to struggle through this broken system for too long. Congress should be doing whatever it can to fix the system and make it easier for veterans to get the help they need, not putting up more roadblocks. Not every veteran will choose to hire a private service, but they should be given the option to do so if that is best for them. We owe them that.
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