Commentary by Darin Selnick, a U.S. Air Force veteran. He is an independent consultant and a member of the Concerned Veterans for America’s organizing committee. He served as special assistant to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2001-2009.
Here’s a pop quiz: does the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) exist to serve the needs of military veterans and their families, or the needs of government bureaucrats?
The correct answer is, of course, veterans and their families. But based upon proposed changes to the VA’s disability benefit system, it seems the VA’s leadership has lost sight of the department’s service mission in the quest for bureaucratic convenience.
For decades, any veteran seeking VA disability benefits had a variety of options for submitting a claim; even a handwritten note, explaining that he or she suffered a disability contracted in service, could serve to open the claims process.
A new proposal from the Department of Veterans Affairs would require disabled veterans to file an official claim application to start an already daunting process. (AP Photo/The Times-Picayune, Michael DeMocker)
This flexibility in the application process is important for a couple of reasons. First, the VA counts this initial submission as the beginning of the claims process. Since disability applications can take months or even years to adjudicate, it meant that once the VA awarded a claim, the veteran would receive his or her benefits retroactively from the date of initial submission. That could mean potentially thousands of dollars for a disabled veteran in need.
But now the VA is proposing to ditch that fair and humane approach. Under the new rules, the “informal claims process” would give way, and applicants would be required to either file online or to complete a standardized form by hand.
On the face of it, this may look like a positive step. After all, the VA is taking steps toward greater efficiency, which is what we want government agencies to do. But what’s worrisome is that the VA is adopting a highly selective form of efficiency that will place heavier burdens on the most vulnerable veterans.
It’s important to understand that veterans are a diverse population, with many at different places in their lives. For an older veteran who’s homeless, or a veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, a handwritten disability claim may be the best he can do—he or she may lack the resources, ability or opportunity to file online or to complete a detailed application form.
In a Jan. 7, 2014 photo, college-educated architect and Vietnam War veteran John Chambers, who has been living homeless in his minivan since January of 2013, prepares for another cold night inside his mini-van in a local shopping center parking lot with his dog Scout. Chambers has everything he owns inside the van and is fighting to get his house back in the Victory Park Community of Marietta, which was foreclosed on by Freddie Mac and Wells Fargo Bank. (AP Photo/Marietta Daily Journal, Kelly J. Huff)
But under the new rules, this veteran is likely to be severely penalized, since it would give the VA more power to delay or not accept claims that they judge incomplete. The new application system may be a victory for bureaucratic efficiency, but it’s certainly no boon for the veterans most in need of assistance.
It also represents the latest in a disturbing trend as the VA becomes more complex and less user-friendly. Just as it’s become increasingly impossible for the average American to complete his or her tax return without professional assistance, VA beneficiaries are being forced to turn more and more to outside veterans service officers, experts in navigating the bureaucratic minefield of the benefits process, to assist in completing their applications. Greater complexity will not serve to make the VA more responsive to the needs of veterans and their families.
So what can the VA do to fix this problem? We’re fortunate to have a strong advocacy presence in the form of veterans service organizations (VSO), such as The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), that work to represent the interests of military veterans and their families. The VA should consult closely with the VSO community, many of whom have objected to the new rules, to determine a better way to handle the transition toward standardized application. This will help to ensure that no veteran is left behind.
[sharequote align="center"]We are dealing with veterans, not procedures; with their problems, not ours.[/sharequote]
Gen. Omar Bradley, the distinguished war leader who served as head of the VA following World War II, set forth a simple standard for working with military veterans:
We are dealing with veterans, not procedures; with their problems, not ours.
Bradley’s wise admonition seems all but forgotten by today’s VA, a dysfunctional agency that finds itself increasingly stymied by its own bureaucracy.
The department deserves credit for seeking to adopt new technologies and systems to improve their speed and accuracy, but the search for efficiency should never result in a more negative experience for veterans. The VA should take care to ensure that changes to the department’s policies and procedures are always directed toward solving the problems of veterans first.
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