Bipartisan Solutions are Best for Veterans’ Care
When I was drafted into the U.S. Army at the outset of the Vietnam War, Democrats firmly ruled national politics, holding the presidency and supermajorities in both branches of Congress. Since then, America has sought a balance of power between the two major political parties.
While partisan gridlock has increased in recent times, with Democrats and Republicans vying for control of the White House and Congress, and despite a harsh political environment, there are still instances of healthy cooperation on smart policies that give me hope for the future in these troubled times.
A perfect example of this is how a group of lawmakers from Michigan, South Carolina, and my home state of California have come together to sponsor a bill aimed at better helping our veterans.
In addressing a sensitive issue regarding veteran disability benefits that has been circulating in Congress for several years, Republican Congressman Jack Bergman of Michigan, a retired Marine Corps three-star general, recently introduced the PLUS for Veterans Act of 2023. This bill seeks to protect veterans from scammers while preserving their options regarding who can help file claims, unlike rival legislation that would limit their choices.
As a veteran who closely follows these issues, it was a pleasure to see Democrat Lou Correa of California join him as a co-sponsor, along with Republican Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who happens to be the first woman to graduate from The Citadel, the state’s historic military college.
Having started my career as an elected official in the rough and tumble politics of San Francisco, I know firsthand that it’s not easy to cross the aisle and join the other party, especially in today’s political climate. I have interacted with Congressman Correa many times in Washington, and I am grateful that he’s taking a leadership role in assisting those who have sacrificed so much for our country.
These leaders deserve much credit for working together on win-win solutions for veterans, and hopefully, their colleagues will join their efforts to turn their work into law.
I was also pleased to see a companion bill introduced in the Senate by Republican Senator John Kennedy shortly after the House took action.
To provide some context, in 2019, there was proposed legislation in the Senate that would have significantly restricted who could file benefit claims on behalf of veterans. Similar attempts have followed in both branches of Congress and even the White House ever since.
In a well-intentioned effort to combat scammers, these measures would have eliminated the option for veterans to hire external private consultants and severely limited veterans’ choices in appealing their current disability rating.
Apart from veterans filing claims on their own, there are currently three options for claims assistance available and listed on the VA website, although this would be reduced to one. An important caveat is that the large Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) with sufficient funds to employ staff attorneys accredited by the VA would still be legally permitted to file claims through that loophole.
However, this would effectively shut down many smaller and mid-size VSOs that exist to help veterans with disability claims, as filing claims on their behalf would become illegal.
Furthermore, numerous small businesses, typically run by service-disabled veterans who have acquired expertise in navigating the complex system, would also be forced to close.
While the option for veterans to file claims by themselves, with assistance from a 1-800 number listed on the VA’s website, may seem ideal in theory, the bureaucratic process often takes years, making it an impractical choice for many veterans. In my case, I was unable to obtain VA disability benefits because I couldn’t produce all my military medical records from the 1960s. How many people could manage that on their own?
Proper assistance with VA claims is a significant matter because approximately 5 million veterans receive disability benefits today. As more veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer long-term health effects and begin filing claims, this number is expected to rise.
Instead of implementing a draconian move to sharply limit veterans’ options, as some in Washington are attempting to do, the PLUS Act aims to expand and simplify the accreditation process. This would ensure that those assisting veterans can be properly vetted without necessitating them to be VA-paid attorneys. It’s a smart move that all Americans should support.