WASHINGTON — Advocates are pushing for a new senior administrator focused on economic opportunity at the Department of Veterans Affairs, arguing the current bureaucratic setup doesn’t do enough to highlight those critical transition and employment issues.

The new office — the Veterans Economic Opportunity Administration — would be headed by an under secretary reporting directly to the VA Secretary, under a proposal to be outlined by Student Veterans of America and the American Enterprise Institute later today.

The new division would oversee issues such as housing loans, education assistance and employment programs. SVA officials said those topics are core to VA’s mission, but are currently buried within the larger Veterans Benefits Administration instead of being highlighted on their own.

“One of VA’s core missions is giving veterans the best resources possible for their transition and opportunities after the military,” said Will Hubbard, vice president for government affairs at SVA. “At present, those programs are essentially withering.”

VA currently has three under secretaries who report directly to the department’s top official: one in charge of benefits, one in charge of health issues, and one in charge of cemetery and memorial issues.

The health under secretary post has been filled by acting officials since David Shulkin left the job to assume the VA Secretary position. The benefits under secretary has been open even longer, for nearly 29 months.

In December, VA Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity Curt Coy retired from that job after more than six years overseeing those issues. The new proposal would lift his old post to a fourth major priority for VA, while capping the staffing at the agency to near current levels.

Hubbard said that move would keep costs of the change minimal while still elevating the programs and issues to a higher profile.

“This is about flattening the bureaucracy and cutting red tape,” he said.

In a report released this morning, Rebecca Burgess — head of AEI’s Program on American Citizenship — said the move to create a new undersecretary position would fit well with recent White House initiatives to work on improving veterans’ transitions and mental health care.

“By placing only these programs under the purview of a designated senior-level leader, VA would officially recognize and provide accountability for the legitimate role that economic opportunity plays in the whole-health model commitment of care it has made to veterans,” she stated.

“While mental health resources for veterans are essential, they represent only one element of a whole-health model of care … Naturally clustered around education benefits, economic opportunity programs signal post-service personal growth and economic and social wellness.”

Hubbard said lawmakers have been open to the idea so far, but he hopes the new focused push on the issue will gain even more support.

“When we talk to them about the idea, they see the value in this idea,” he said. “They immediately get it.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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