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Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been trading accusations for weeks now over the potential impact of proposed budget cuts on veterans' benefits. What that conflagration missed is that millions of veterans are already effectively being denied their benefits due to an unnecessarily complex and arcane disability compensation system.
Even worse, there are legislative proposals under consideration in Congress that would make it even harder for veterans to navigate that system. Instead of cutting benefits or putting up roadblocks, Congress should be honoring our veterans by making it as easy as possible for them to receive the benefits they earned.
I have witnessed firsthand how difficult it is for veterans to obtain what is owed to them under the law. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps for six years, I was proud to take a position in 2009 at the Department of Veterans Affairs as a rating veteran service representative, or rater, where I reviewed disability compensation applications and assigned disability ratings, determining the amount of benefits veterans would receive.
But over the course of my tenure at the VA, I became disheartened by the process. While we were certainly helping some veterans, far too many were being denied benefits they earned due to an absurdly complicated system. Through no fault of their own, veterans were receiving lower disability ratings than they deserved or were simply waiting years to receive final determinations on their benefits.
By 2015, I had seen enough. I left the VA and joined my wife in starting a company focused on helping veterans to navigate the VA system. Much like a tax service provider, our company helps Americans travel through a byzantine bureaucracy to get what they are owed.
Unfortunately, our ability to continue helping veterans in this way is under threat. Some members of Congress, concerned about bad actors seeking to take advantage of veterans, have introduced overly broad legislation, the GUARD VA Benefits Act, that would make it illegal for well-intended and ethical private-sector companies like ours to assist veterans. This legislation would needlessly deny veterans the freedom to choose whether to use experienced private-sector guides. And it would worsen the VA's claims case backlog.
It is clear that our services are needed. At present, only 5.2 million of 19 million eligible veterans are receiving benefits. That means millions of eligible veterans are not receiving benefits they have earned, either because they aren't aware of their eligibility, have already tried to receive benefits and were wrongly denied, or are too intimidated by the process to even apply.
Further still, the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and new legislation such as the PACT Act, have overwhelmed the VA, which now faces a backlog of almost 200,000 claims and a claims inventory of more than 800,000 and rising. VA medical personnel and contractors can't keep up with the demand, leaving many veterans experiencing insufficient and rushed medical exams, resulting in inaccurate claims applications. Veterans service organizations, or VSOs, which are intended to represent veterans in the process, are understaffed and too often inadequately trained.
And attorneys who are accredited by the VA to assist veterans are paid to help only during the appeals process, which occurs only after a veteran has been denied their benefit or received an inaccurately low disability rating. Even worse, the attorneys are incentivized to drag out appeals, since they are paid a percentage of the veteran's benefit back pay.
Our company and other private-sector guides are helping to address this problem. Rather than dragging out appeals or trying to complete a large volume of applications, we focus on helping each veteran to submit a fully developed and accurate claim, to avoid the need for appeals and speed up the final benefits decision. Our role in the process cuts back on VA paperwork and labor, which reduces the long claims backlog and saves taxpayer dollars. And our veteran clients receive an average increase in annual benefits of $13,200, benefits they would not receive without our help.
Critics of private-sector companies that guide veterans argue that veterans shouldn't pay to receive benefits they have earned and that free help is available through VSOs. But the reality is that veterans are already paying through the current system because they are not receiving their full benefits in a reasonable time frame.
In fact, more than 70% of our clients first tried navigating the VA process on their own or with the help of a VSO representative, but were either denied the full benefit they earned or felt the process was too slow. And all of our clients are informed of the availability of free services before we work with them, but they choose to use us anyway.
Instead of outlawing services like ours, Congress should focus on ensuring honorable private-sector companies can continue helping veterans while putting up guardrails that would stop bad actors in the space. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., a former lieutenant general in the Marine Corps, has introduced legislation, the PLUS for Veterans Act, that would do just that. His bill would impose criminal penalties on those seeking to take advantage of veterans, establish safeguards to prevent conflicts of interest and impose caps to prevent unreasonable fees, while still preserving the right of veterans to seek assistance from the private sector.
Veterans have served our country with honor and distinction. If our VA disability system is too complicated to be navigated on your own or with available free help, veterans deserve to have the choice of using experienced private-sector guides to help them receive the full benefits they earned from their service in a timely manner.
-- Josh Smith is CEO and founder of Veteran Benefits Guide.