CORRECTION: This story was updated July 22 to reflect how much the new VA hospital in Aurora was over budget.
America owes a debt of honor and gratitude to our veterans. They deserve the very best our country can offer them, but for too long they have been receiving far less than that.
Among the lingering problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs is a flawed disability benefits system that — more often than not — creates unnecessarily long delays in getting benefits to the veterans who have so profoundly earned them. There is now an effort underway in Washington, D.C., which however well-intentioned, will make that already broken system even more dysfunctional.
Problems with the VA are nothing new, as witnessed throughout my time on the Committee on Veterans Affairs in the U.S. Congress. From the scandal in 2014 at a facility in Phoenix that falsified records in order to conceal egregious wait times to the myriad of problems encountered with the new VA hospital in Aurora which came in $1 billion over budget, I have worked to bring accountability to the VA when such outrages are brought to light.
Today, one of the worst issues plaguing the VA is the tremendous backlog of disability claims. Of the roughly 590,000 pending VA disability claims, more than 170,000 are older than 125 days. In other words, well over a third of claims have been languishing for more than 4 months. The problem is only expected to grow.
Navigating the VA benefits system is already an extraordinarily complex undertaking. Veterans can handle the process themselves or enlist the help of several outside actors ranging from veterans service organizations to VA accredited legal help to private consultants. However, the program itself can at times be complicated and have a backwards incentive system.
Going it alone is a daunting process, for which most vets have neither the time nor experience to pursue effectively. VSOs, meanwhile, have experienced double-digit declines in membership over the past two decades and are mostly made up of volunteers who usually lack the experience, manpower, and resources to help with disability claims. The financial incentives are such that VA accredited lawyers only get involved once a claim has been denied, so are of little value in the initial stages, and they are paid regardless of the final outcome.
That leaves private consultants who are paid on a contingency basis — that is, only if they deliver a benefit to a veteran. They are often the best and sometimes the only option for veterans to sift through the red tape of disability claims. But there have been some efforts in Congress to effectively eliminate that option — including a 2019 bill, S. 2407, which would outlaw non-VA-accredited consultants. While that bill has not been reintroduced, there are discussions taking place on the Hill to add its language to S. 2141, the Preventing Crimes Against Veterans Act. This would needlessly broaden the scope of a bill that ought to remain focused on criminalizing those who would defraud veterans out of their payments, rather than private consultants who are filling a gap and trying to help.
While these efforts are ostensibly about protecting veterans from predatory consultants and unscrupulous actors in the private space — something I wholeheartedly support — there are far better ways to achieve that goal than by eliminating this vital resource for veterans. Simply being “private” or “for profit” does not make an entity malicious by definition. Private options exist for a great number of public services and use the power of private enterprise to offer exceptional outcomes — private tax preparation, package delivery, ambulance services, and public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects are just a few examples. This efficiency should also be made available to our veterans for the processing of benefits claims, to relieve the backlog and provide benefits to those who need them as quickly as possible.
Some reforms and protections can be built into the system, but we need to put a little more thought into what those might be to ensure they do not cause greater harm. One common sense reform would be to expand the VA’s accreditation system to accommodate the business model of private consultants, and thereby expand the choice of options for veterans seeking relief.
If a bad actor in this space defrauds a veteran, then the full force of the law should descend upon that individual or firm. And if the law needs to be adjusted to provide for that, then so be it. But it is absolutely nonsensical to eliminate altogether an effective and necessary resource for our veterans in the name of rooting out a handful of bad consultants.
The VA system has many flaws, several of which have contributed to the unconscionable backlog of disability claims. Reforms are needed but must be done in a way that does not exacerbate the problem or limit veterans’ choices. Our country owes them at least that much.
Mike Coffman is mayor of Aurora, Colorado. He served in Congress from 2009 – 2019 as representative from Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, where he served on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
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