Veterans’ issues need pragmatism, vision for future

If we truly want to resolve, once and for all, the issues facing veterans today, we must move beyond a discussion of the problems and focus on what will have tangible, positive impact.

This isn’t easy. If the answers were clear and everyone agreed with them, there wouldn’t be problems. Talking about solutions often means having difficult conversations about change and compromise. The time for these conversations has arrived.

This is especially true for one of the biggest problems facing veterans today: the claims backlog. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) claims backlog has been an issue that has risen to national attention and prompted much outrage. 

And for good reason — the number of veterans’ claims currently pending approval by the VA totals almost 880,000. Claims pending for more than 125 days, which are considered “in the backlog,” total nearly 600,000. This is unacceptable.

Addressing this problem will require us to focus on substantive solutions that will make a difference. That’s why I recently spearheaded an effort in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to develop a bipartisan legislative package designed to help the VA meet its goals of reducing the claims backlog and getting veterans their benefits faster.

The package of 10 bills represents a coordinated effort to put forth a pragmatic approach to addressing the claims backlog. A number of these initiatives enjoy strong bipartisan support and are backed by advocates for veterans. The proposed legislation would:

Greatly reduce the time the VA and veterans spend waiting for the Defense Department to provide information to substantiate a claim by requiring the DOD to provide certified, complete, and electronic records to the VA within 21 days of discharge.

Get payments to veterans faster, by providing partial payments as medical conditions are adjudicated. Veterans currently have to wait until all medical conditions within a claim are fully adjudicated to receive payment. 

Enable quicker, more accurate rating decisions by requiring the VA to maximize the use of private medical evidence. Instead of requiring a VA medical examination, veterans would be allowed to supply medical evidence from their non-VA doctor. This would also conserve VA resources that could be applied to other claims processing areas.

Reduce the time it takes to adjudicate complex and time-consuming medical conditions by establishing “Centers of Excellence” that focus the best-performing regional offices on the most difficult claims.

Some of these bills would have an immediate, positive impact. Others will have an impact over the next two years. And still others are designed to be long-term approaches to prevent future backlogs.

And while addressing the current needs of our veterans is critical, we also need a proactive and forward-looking vision for the future. This vision should be larger than a VA strategic plan. It should go beyond current policies, processes, programs and problems. It should incorporate participation from all stakeholders, public and private, individual and institutional.

We need to recognize that the community supporting veterans has expanded. Academia, industry, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and the philanthropic community are more engaged than ever before.  This new coalition needs to periodically step out of the day-to-day operational issues and explore how America should honor, care for and support its veterans and their families over the next 10, 15, and 20 years.

History and research is clear: Support for veterans and their families needs to ramp up after war winds down. As headlines from Iraq and Afghanistan fade, we must not lose sight of the long-term need for the government and the American people to support veterans, their families and critical veteran-related programs.

By being proactive and strategic, we can advance a national conversation and vision that will take a holistic approach to defining and implementing our nation’s commitment to reintegrating service members and the country’s collective desired outcome for veterans and their families.

Only then will we ensure that today’s problems are not repeated in the future, and veterans and veteran issues continue to receive the national attention and action they deserve in the years after the country has moved on from the recent wars.

Only with both pragmatism toward today’s issues and a vision for tomorrow can we see to it that a veteran’s service continues to be respected, that their sacrifice is forever recognized, and, most importantly, that they and their families are able to have an independent and rewarding life after military service.

Michaud is the ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.