January 27, 2009 – A roundtable discussion, aimed at creating a consensus among military and veterans groups about top priorities for the year ahead, focused on how solving some longstanding problems might be especially important today to veterans and their families who are being hurt by the national economic crisis.
The discussion involving 36 organizations representing current and former service members was sponsored by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which has responsibility over some, but not all, veterans programs.
In comparing the views of the groups, committee staff came up with five shared priorities: advance appropriations for veterans’ programs, fixing disability compensation, improving mental health treatment, implementing the new Post-9/11 GI Bill in August and smoothing the transition from military to civilian life.
None of those issues are new, and the problems have proven difficult to fix. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the veterans’ committee chairman, said Congress has tried to eliminate a backlog of disability claims that have forced veterans to wait, on average, more than 180 days for a simple claim to be approved and years of delay if the claim is complicated. Congress boosted VA staff so that more people are processing claims, which may be a long-term solution – but while new employees are being found and trained, “the backlog is growing,” Filner said.
Congress has faced similar problems in trying to improve job training and rehabilitation programs, creating programs that reduce homelessness and expanding access to veterans’ health care.
John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, and representatives from the Non Commissioned Officers Association and Veterans of Foreign Wars all backed the idea of making quick improvements in veterans programs to help people who have lost jobs or health insurance because of the economic slump.
Rowan had the most ambitious idea, proposing to create a new VA division for economic independence that would oversee small business, job training, vocational rehabilitation programs and reintegration efforts for injured and disabled veterans. Rowan said the idea would be to take programs spread throughout the government, where they are the “step-children of some other agency,” and make them into veterans’ programs.
Cutting the processing time for disability checks would be of immediate help to veterans who have lost jobs and also might reduce homelessness among veterans, said Richard Schneider of the Non Commissioned Officers Association. “This nation is in an unemployment crisis,” he said. “We need to fix the claims backlog. It will help the homeless issue. It will help the unemployment issue. It is a tragedy that people have waited years to be paid.”
Chris Needham of Veterans of Foreign Wars said veterans programs also could help people who lose health insurance when they lose their jobs if VA uses existing waiver authority that would consider current income – and not income over the previous 12 months – when deciding whether they qualify as low-income veterans, which allows them to qualify for health care even if they do not have service-connected medical problems.
A smaller group of six veterans’ organizations will testify Wednesday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about their priorities for the 2010 VA budget.