VA's first commitment to veterans should be access, not delays

VA's first commitment to veterans should be access, not delays
© Greg Nash

Throughout each year, and especially on Veterans Day, America honors its veterans and their sacrifices. One of the most important ways our nation does so is by providing generous benefits to those who defend our freedoms. 

In addition to health care, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides education and homeownership benefits, transition and career assistance, and a range of other tools aimed at making sure men and women can enjoy civilian life in the country they stood up to defend.

But none of those benefits can be unlocked until a veteran’s application passes through the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), a process that should take no more than four months but often takes much longer.

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For veterans who return home with an immediate need for these benefits, this can be a frustrating period of delay. It can mean postponed decisions on where to live and where to send their children to school. It can mean missing out on possible job and home ownership opportunities because VA doesn’t have a veteran’s forms in order. 

Most importantly, it can mean suffering with intense pain or uncomfortable medical conditions while the VA bureaucracy grinds through the enrollment process.

Veterans who sacrificed their time and well-being on behalf of this country should return home to open, caring arms, not reams of paperwork and months of waiting. VA must do better.

I know firsthand that VA can do better. When I led VBA from 2018 to 2021, we made real progress on this issue by reducing average enrollment time by 25 percent. We also implemented proven business practices, streamlined the bureaucracy, and provided more benefits faster and at a lower cost than any time in history.

But now, enrollment delays are sadly rising again. While VBA has the power to improve enrollment wait times on its own, it’s clear we need a permanent legislative solution so that veterans’ well-being doesn’t depend on shifting priorities that can change with each new administration.

That’s why I support a proposal to end enrollment delays forever, called “Express 30,” put forth by the Veterans 4 America First Institute. Under this plan, a veteran walking into VA for the first time would be sent to the front of the line and fully enrolled within 30 days. 

Getting veterans inside the VA quickly is a critical first step. It would immediately result in a disability rating that gives veterans financial and medical support and spares them months of anxiety and uncertainty while the VA bureaucracy shuffles paper. It would immediately open the door to education, career and other counseling benefits. And it would immediately connect new veterans with VA resources and support that have been shown to reduce suicide, at a time when veteran suicides remain stubbornly high. The suicide rate is 1.5 times higher among veterans than civilians. Since 9/11, for every veteran who was killed in combat zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq, four more veterans died by suicide. That is unacceptable.

Advocates are aggressively pushing Express 30 by talking with members of Congress who support the idea, but we need help. Americans can lend their voices to this fight by signing a petition, which urges lawmakers to take up legislation that can help so many deserving veterans by prioritizing first-time claims ahead of repeat claims and requiring first-time claims to be completed in 30 days. These two policy changes would make a huge difference in bringing more veterans into the system and getting them the benefits they deserve in a timely manner. 

After years of scandal, VA was reborn under President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE and was on a path toward becoming the best-run Cabinet agency in the federal government. Now we see worrying signs that this progress may be at risk. This Veterans Day, Americans can help ensure that this doesn’t happen, and that the recent bipartisan gains we made at VA are not lost, by supporting the Express 30 proposal to reform VA benefits now.

Paul R. Lawrence, Ph.D., is an Army veteran who most recently served as Under Secretary for Benefits in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from 2018 to 2021. He is the author of "Transforming Service to Veterans." Follow him on Twitter @PaulRLawrence.