Veterans Affairs officials will launch a new advisory board to review department benefits to find ways to simplify the current process and cut back on bureaucratic costs.
“We have to make simpler benefits determinations,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said at the National Press Club on Monday. “We’re spending too much on administrative costs, and we have to let veterans know what they can expect.”
“They shouldn’t have to constantly be refiling claims to get what they deserve,” Shulkin added.
The comments come amid ambitious VA health care overhaul plans that Shulkin has been promoting for months and could represent another dramatic change for the future of the department.
The administration’s budget plan for fiscal 2018 calls for nearly $108 billion in mandatory spending for veterans benefits, including things like disability compensation and education payouts.
Shulkin insisted the goal of the new review is not to reduce those costs.
“This is not about taking away benefits from veterans,” he said. “This is about making benefits work better for veterans and transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs to do better for years and for generations for future veterans.”
But Shulkin did say that he wants to ensure the benefits system is emphasizing “service-connection for disabilities, so we aren’t compensating veterans for age-related issues.”
The median age for U.S. veterans is over 65, according to VA statistics. Department officials have said that an aging population creates more strain on its health care and benefits programs.
Shulkin also said that for decades, veterans benefits have been too vulnerable to political trends and underestimated in their long-term costs. And he said the current payout process often disincentives veterans from working towards independence, adding that officials need to create “a system that focuses on veterans’ abilities, not on their disabilities.”
The specifics of what the review could produce are unclear, and any large-scale changes to the benefits or the application process will likely require congressional intervention.
Department officials have unveiled a series of new claims processes in recent years designed to cut down on the months or years that current cases average. But Shulkin still called the current setup “adversarial” for veterans and said he wants to find ways to simplify it further.
Shulkin did not release any details of the board’s makeup but said he hopes the new advisors can start “an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders about rationalizing veterans benefits “
VA officials are currently searching for a permanent appointee for the department’s undersecretary of benefits post, work that began last spring but has not yet produced any public names.