By Hon. Michael P. Flanagan
The numbers of veterans in need and eligible for veterans’ benefits is at the highest level since the Vietnam Era, and growing daily.
For example, two years ago there were roughly 520,000 pending Veterans Administration (VA) claims for disability compensation and benefits. Of these, about 191,000 were considered to be backlogged (defined as older than 125 days). Today those numbers are 802,000 pending VA claims and of which 210,000 are considered to be backlogged.
In Illinois, meanwhile, only 15% of veterans receive any VA disability compensation, well below the national average of 23%. This is due in large part to the fact that many veterans have simply given up pursuing these vital benefits because of the labyrinth of bureaucracy required even to apply, much less obtain them.
To enter the maze, eligible veterans usually need assistance to even start the process. This help ordinarily comes in four forms: 1) self-help with the VA itself; 2) lawyers; 3) Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs); and 4) private VA benefits claims consultants.
Self-Help is problematic because of a gap in knowledge and navigation abilities that often makes the VA assistance unintelligible for most veterans. Lawyers are great – but are expensive and slower than the other types of assistance and usually only get involved if a benefits claim is being appealed.
The most useful help to the veteran has traditionally been VSOs. In each of their Posts is a Service Officer whose job it is to assist veterans in understanding their benefits and completing their applications. Sadly, these VSOs are dying out as their membership dwindles daily.
In Illinois, for example, only about 60% of the few remaining VSO Service Officers even have a phone number or email listed according to the VA website. That leaves about 1 reachable VSO Service Officer for 4,200 eligible veterans in the Prairie State.
In an effort to better serve our veterans, Congress is currently debating additional reforms to the veteran benefits process and procedures. While this effort is well-intentioned, some of the proposals for reform would have negative unintended consequences by denying consultants, the other main avenue for assistance, the ability to become accredited VA actors and criminalizing their business model.
VA benefits claims consultants are private companies that, similar to VSOs, help veterans with their benefits claims. As is typically the case with a private company, these consultants have extensive staff expertise and systems in place to be as efficient as possible. The largest portion of their fees flow from a contingency model which means they do not get paid unless there is a benefit increase for the veteran. While this has worked well in the past, it would no longer be permissible if a bill known as the GUARD VA Benefits Act is passed.
The recently introduced Preserving Lawful Utilization of Services (PLUS) for the Veterans Act of 2023 (the PLUS Act) is a better option as it would offer a pathway for private entities to achieve VA acceptance via a rigorous accreditation procedure. Offered by the retired and highly decorated war veteran Rep. Jack Bergman and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of Congressional members, the PLUS Act empowers veterans to decide their approach to the highly intricate VA benefits system in a structured and prompt manner should they opt for this course of action. Moreover, the act will implement security measures and safeguards for veterans.
Veterans in Illinois and across the country have given so much. The least we can do is ensure reasonable access to the benefits they are owed. I strongly encourage all Illinois members of Congress to support the PLUS Act quickly and start down the path of eliminating the growing VA backlog.
Congressman Mike Flanagan represented the 5th District of Illinois in the historic 104th Congress. A former Captain in the United States Army, he sat on the Committees on the Judiciary, Government Reform and Oversight, and Veterans’ Affairs.
Sadly, finding a Veterans Service Officer is no simple matter either.
In comparison, to other Departments in the American Legion, the Department of Illinois has experienced a serious decline in its membership and is currently ranked 48th.
New leadership is essential.