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VIEWPOINT: Delaware Must Create a Veteran-Centered Support System

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Ensuring that those who have served our country in the military receive the care and opportunities they have earned should be a top priority at every level of government. Unfortunately, the current systems employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for providing healthcare and benefits currently face a number of issues.

Shaun Rieley examines how Delaware legislators could follow the PLUS for the Veterans Act to establish a veteran-centered support system.

Shaun Rieley | PHOTO COURTESY OF MADISON STRATEGIES

Confusing and plagued by backlogs, it is underpinned by a rating system that places a singular emphasis on compensation at the expense of promoting rehabilitation and self-sufficiency. And yet even for those who are deserving of compensation for injuries and conditions resulting from their service, there are substantial challenges to receiving what has been earned.

Delaware’s more than 65,000 veterans are not immune from these challenges. And, while there are limits to what Delaware lawmakers can achieve at the state level, legislators in Dover have now started exploring ways that they can make an impact. While House Bill 272—which is currently under consideration—was no doubt introduced with the best of intentions, without some changes it could inadvertently do a disservice to the veterans it seeks to help.

Navigating the VA disability benefits claims process can be a daunting and frustrating experience for veterans given that success often requires a deep understanding of the claims process, extensive documentation, and even additional medical evaluations. Accordingly, many veterans turn to outside actors for assistance including Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) and VA-accredited attorneys. They can be important partners in the process, to be sure, but the fact that so many veterans feel the need to seek help—and the persistent backlog of claims—underscores the challenges inherent in the status quo.

As a result, in recent years, private consulting agents have emerged to provide further assistance. Often referred to as VA claims consultants, these professionals possess in-depth knowledge of the benefits claims process and the specific requirements for submitting a successful claim. Unfortunately, House Bill 272 would deprive veterans of this important avenue of assistance in navigating the VA disability claims process in the name of protecting them.

Specifically, because the current VA accreditation regime does not allow for the official recognition of private claims consultants, some lawmakers seem to have presumed that the best course of action is to implement ade facto ban by preventing them from receiving compensation for their work. This is what House Bill 272 would do—but there’s a better way forward.

Instead of restricting veterans’ options, lawmakers should encourage the expansion of avenues for assistance, while ensuring that veterans are protected from malicious actors. One promising alternative at the federal level is the bipartisan PLUS for the Veterans Act, which is currently under consideration in Congress. The bill creates a pathway for private entities to gain VA accreditation through a rigorous process, instituting a number of guardrails and disclosure requirements surrounding the use of claims consultants. It also imposes stiff criminal penalties on those who abuse the system and the veterans they are supposed to serve.

Here in Delaware, legislators could take a similar tack. While VA accreditation guidance must be changed at the federal level, they could modify the language in House Bill 272 to mirror the PLUS Act, providing important protections while preserving the private option for veterans.

Delaware’s veterans deserve assistance that will enable them to painlessly navigate the system and receive the benefits they have earned through their service and sacrifice. Let’s honor them by building a veteran-centered support system for the future.

Shaun Rieley served as an infantryman in the Army National Guard, including overseas tours in Iraq and Cuba. He currently works in higher education and previously served in senior policy roles at a number of veteran-focused non-profits. A native of Sussex County, he is a member of American Legion Post 28 in Oak Orchard. 

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