Vets can soon be thankful for Congress's interest in payment issues

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, many of us will take time this week to pause and appreciate the fact that there is always something to be thankful for.

Although veterans and their families who have been impacted by the recent GI Bill payment delays at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) may find this sentiment more challenging than others this year, there is something affected veterans can also pause and be thankful for — the renewed interest from Congress and the media in improving economic opportunity programs for veterans such as those related to transition, employment and education.

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Typically, in terms of both media coverage and congressional oversight, such programs often take a backseat to the larger and more visible programs related to veterans’ healthcare and disability compensation. However, given their increased importance in VA’s transition to a 21st a century organization, it is time to prioritize VA’s economic opportunity programs by elevating them to their own administration within the department.

Currently, VA is divided into three administrations: the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration and the National Cemetery Administration.

VA’s educational assistance programs are housed under the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

The creation of a separate business line to focus solely on economic opportunity, including education and GI Bill related benefits, would go a long way in preventing issues such as the payment delays associated with implementation of the Forever GI Bill through an increased focus and prioritization of such programs.

Fortunately for veterans, the "VET OPP Act," legislation that was introduced by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) last spring and was passed by the House shortly thereafter, would do just that.

As highlighted during a House hearing and various media reports last week, VA officials were unable to state when an internal IT system would be updated to address GI Bill-related payment issues and were also otherwise unable to provide specifics on how it would fix additional implementation-related issues. According to Student Veterans of America, VA’s failure to prioritize economic opportunity programs within VBA is partially to blame.

Similarly, as was noted in testimony by several Veterans Service Organizations during a May 2018 legislative hearing on Wenstrup’s legislation, unfortunately, many of VA’s educational programs have been overlooked by VBA due to the noise over the last few years surrounding the claims and appeals backlogs.

According to The American Legion, “[r]eports from the field have confirmed an ongoing trend of economic programs competing with the claims and appeals backlog for relevancy and funding.”

Similarly, Paralyzed Veterans of America testified that “Removing programs like [veterans rehabilitation and employment] from VBA’s list of responsibilities will not only allow for more attention to be placed on those programs but it will also allow VBA to better focus on processing claims for compensation and pension benefits.”

More importantly, however, VA’s continued inattention to issues that impact those transitioning from active duty to veteran-status the most, such as education and employment, actually harms veterans.

As highlighted in a March 2018 report prepared by AEI, stress experienced by veterans transitioning out of the military is often mistaken for suffering from a mental health disorder, which only serves to propagate the “broken veteran” narrative.

The report continued that legislation “geared only toward expanding veterans’ mental health resources unconsciously perpetuates this image” and, therefore, “[r]eformulating veteran legislation in the positive language of economic opportunity emphasizes post-serve growth.”

Unfortunately, however, the push for a forth administration dedicated to economic opportunity and transition issues has stalled in the Senate.

With few legislative days remaining before the conclusion of the 115th Congress, which currently has December 14, 2018, marked for a target adjournment date, the Senate should make passage of language from the VET OPP Act a top priority.

First and again, as highlighted by the AEI report, “appointing an under secretary for veterans economic opportunity [programs] . . . would officially recognize and provide accountability for the legitimate role that economic opportunity plays in the whole-health model commitment of care [VA] has made to veterans.”

Second, the pairing of economic opportunity and disability benefits programs are inherently at odds with one another. Whereas disability compensation is designed to compensate veterans for their inability to work, employment and education programs do just the opposite; they are designed to improve veterans’ knowledge and skill sets so that they may improve their individual economic opportunities.

Finally, despite the VA’s testimony in opposition to a fourth administration focused on economic opportunity, the Trump Administration has consistently promoted the idea of reorganization to strengthen and modernize VA. Reorganization through the creation of a fourth business line therefore not only helps veterans, but is clearly in-line with the president’s stated priorities.

Although the recent situation surrounding the GI Bill and delayed payments have accurately been described as “a huge trainwreck,” there is, nonetheless, always something to be thankful for.

Veterans and their families, particularly those impacted by GI Bill payment delays, can be thankful for Congress and the media’s interest in the issue, which shed much needed light on a disastrous situation with dire consequences for those involved.

And, as a result of this increased interest, perhaps we can soon also be thankful for Senate action and the passage of a new law increasing prioritization of these issues at VA to prevent future GI Bill problems, also.

Rory E. 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.