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VA benefits reform — Congress is trapped in a hamster wheel

VA benefits reform — Congress is trapped in a hamster wheel
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The “hamster wheel” is a familiar metaphor for those who work within the Veterans Affairs (VA) disability benefits system. Gaining popularity after its use in a 2006 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, it is most often used to describe the endless cycle of remanding a veteran’s claim before a final decision is reached.

However, the hamster wheel metaphor applies to policy and legislative analysis about the structure of the benefits system just as much as it applies to individual claimants. While recent legislative actions such as the Appeals Modernization Act have taken steps to provide an off ramp from the hamster wheel for individuals, overarching legislation that structurally reforms the overall benefits process to the benefit of all veterans is still stuck in a hamster wheel of its own.

Discussion as to how to disembark from the hamster wheel of structural legislative reform is currently warranted, because VA recently announced that it was initiating the process for establishing presumptive benefits for certain respiratory conditions caused by toxic exposure during the recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding areas. 

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Although this action is a welcome sign for many veterans who have argued that recognition of respiratory illnesses due to burn pits is long-overdue, it also exacerbates another long-standing problem for VA: managing its backlog of disability claims. 

According to the 2015 VA Claims Backlog Working Group Report, “Since at least 1993, the VA has underperformed in its duties to provide timely and accurate disability compensation claims for Veterans.”

Although VA has made significant progress in addressing its claims backlog in recent years, typically, when new presumptive benefits are recognized, VA’s backlog of disability claims increases.

For example, when VA added several new presumptive benefits related to Agent Orange exposure in 2009, its backlog of disability claims more than doubled in size in only four months.

As the 2015 Working Group Report concluded, “VA continues to see the backlog rise every few years because the claims process is currently not structured to handle a surge of filed claims . . . Therefore, substantive[] legislative proposals to reform the process are needed to help the VA modernize its system.”

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With VA getting ready to confront yet another surge of claims due to these new presumptive conditions, it is time for Congress to take another look at substantive reform to the VA benefits process. 

Like the metaphorical hamster wheel referenced above, conversations about structural reform to VA’s disability benefits system often circle around needed reforms but don’t actually go anywhere. Of course, the VA disability benefits system, like many things in need of legislative reform, is easy to complain about, but harder to fix. There are many practical realities that hinder large-scale changes such as fear that any changes would ultimately reduce veterans’ benefits and lack of agreement from polarized legislators on what changes would result in meaningful improvements.

In addition, issues pertaining to the Veterans Benefits Administration are often overshadowed by issues relating to veterans’ health care, despite the fact that VA’s disability benefits budget is larger than that of its medical services budget.

Nonetheless, legislators have been aware of these systemic issues since at least 1945, when a report on the VA, known as the Bradley Commission, concluded that VA’s “dominant problems are the carry-over from past decades of a backward-looking pension philosophy and our failure to adjust the existing veterans’ programs to fundamental changes in our society.”

Despite this warning, little changed, and policy debates about reform stayed stuck inside the legislative hamster wheel. A 1997 Office of the Inspector General Report reiterated  that the VA benefits process “has existed in essentially the same form since World War II,” and recommended several substantive reforms. Almost none were actually implemented.

Fast forward to a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing earlier this month, and Congress, still on the hamster wheel, was once again talking about the backlog, which has also been aggravated by additional factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and recent a court ruling granting benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans.

DAV testified at the hearing, saying, “some VA policy decisions made to address the backlog have been overly driven to the 125-day goal [to complete claims] rather than focused on providing veterans and their families a thoughtful, quick and agile response plan from VA.”

VA estimates that nearly 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that, once these veterans are eligible for presumptive benefits due to their exposure, VA will once again experience a backlog of claims.

It’s time for Congress to put their concerns aside, and undertake an extensive effort to analyze and reform the VA disability claims process. Only after getting off the hamster wheel of policy and legislative analysis can we put an end to the large-scale backlogs and delays that occur every time new veterans’ become eligible for new benefits.

Rory E. Riley-Topping is the founder of Riley-Topping Consulting, where she continues to work with various veterans organizations. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.