Congress must focus on VA's jobs program for disabled vets
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The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program (VRE) under the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must be improved. Despite its promise of being one of the most critical programs designed to assist veterans after they leave the military, it is performing sub-optimally. Congress can play a role to reform the program so that it operates effectively and continues to serve the veterans with significant disabilities it is intended to serve. Many veterans need this program and in order for it to work, it needs to be reformed and fixed.

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The VRE is authorized by Congress and assists veterans with service-connected disabilities in preparing for, finding and keeping suitable jobs. For veterans with service-connected disabilities so severe that they cannot immediately consider work, the VRE offers services to improve their ability to live as independently as possible.

While the G.I. Bill has proven to be one of the most effective programs that veterans have at their disposal, the VRE is a needed supplement. Military service may cause circumstances by which education alone may not be enough for a veteran to reenter the workforce. Physical disability, emotional damage and mental health problems may render a veteran as unemployable unless otherwise retrained.

This program is critical to helping eligible service members and veterans with service-connected disabilities receive the skills and training necessary to help them reintegrate into the workforce and their communities. This is critical, not only because of the inherent financial benefits of employment, but also because returning to work is a way to adjust to the normality of life in a veteran's post-military years. Without the opportunity to continue participating in the workforce, countless veterans with disabilities may become disconnected from society. With the epidemic of veteran suicide affecting so many, a robust VRE program could be what stands between a veteran choosing life over death.

As I have testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, and based on anecdotal evidence from veterans for whom my organization has advocated, those who are living with mental health conditions have reported poor VRE success rates. This is of particular concern as this generation's veterans are experiencing mental health issues based on multiple deployments following a decade of combat operations.

As we seek to remove the stigma of mental health problems, veterans are more willing to seek help for mental health issues. However, there is a shortage of mental health professionals with experience in dealing with veterans' needs and VRE vocational rehabilitation counselors must have the skills and training needed to facilitate job placement and disability-related accommodations.

The VRE was specifically designed to address just such issues. Congress must act to fix it and ensure that its benefits go to those who need it most. By narrowing the pool of eligible veterans, the VRE can improve outcomes and make a failing program successful again.

Currently, the threshold by which a veteran is eligible is a VA disability rating of 10 percent. I suggest that the minimum rating be raised to 30 percent. This is the threshold by which veterans receive employment preference in federal hiring, so it is a threshold that has already been tied to metrics under federal standards.

However, there are certainly injuries that do not reach the 30 percent rating that may hinder veteran employment. For instance, hearing loss, or tinnitus, is rated at 10 percent, regardless of severity. I would offer that VRE eligibility should be measured on a case-by-case basis for certain injuries that may not reach the 30 percent bar, but might make employability without retraining more difficult.

The VRE needs reform since it is critical for helping many veterans return to work and ensure quality of life. But in practice and in its current state, VRE is failing. Not all injuries are created equal and some require more treatment. By raising the eligibility requirement for the program, VRE can focus its resources that need services the most. For those who are no longer VRE-eligible, the VA should assist them through other better-funded programs.

Meglathery is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, an Iraq War combat veteran and a recipient of the Purple Heart Medal. He holds a master's in public administration from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Ross is vice president of VetsFirst, a program of the United Spinal Association that assists veterans and their family members in obtaining the benefits they have earned through their service.


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