American Legion National Legislative Division Director Matthew Shuman testified before the House Economic Opportunity and Disability and Memorial Affairs subcommittees on March 15, the day of the Legion’s 99th birthday, about the 2019 Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget request for the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA).
Modernizing appeals reform at BVA
Shuman said the passage of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act was and remains a much-needed improvement to an archaic and dilapidated system. This reform bill not only gives veterans more control by providing three different routes to file their claim, but also allows the VA to render a decision within a year.
“One bill that The American Legion championed, in concert with this committee, was modernizing the appeals process,” he said. “Now that appeals modernization is being implemented, we need to be sure the legacy appeals or older appeals are not forgotten, and given the due process they deserve.”
The president’s 2019 proposed budget includes $175 million for the BVA to support 1,025 full-time employees to implement reform and address legacy appeals. This increase in funding will also provide the BVA with $74 million to hire 605 full-time employees to address appeals, according to Shuman.
The budget request also includes $2.9 billion for the VBA to process millions of rating and education claims, as well as hire an additional 225 fiduciary employees to protect the VA’s most vulnerable veterans who are unable to manage their benefits.
“The American Legion is thankful to see the increase in funding for the Board of Veterans Appeals to maintain the current 1,000 (full-time employees) and hire an additional 600 employees to address appeals modernization reform and focus on the legacy appeals,” said Shuman. “Some of these claims are older than I am and that is simply embarrassing.”
Shuman said the Legion understands the need for VBA to process veterans’ claims within a timely manner and treat them with the respect they deserve. Providing increased funding will allow the VA to process claims faster and better, all for the benefit of the veteran.
Moreover, Shuman said processing claims the correct way will essentially reduce VA’s workload and the negative impact on veterans.
Funding for the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program
Shuman said the VR&E program provides comprehensive services and assistance, enabling veterans with service-connected disabilities and employment handicaps to achieve maximum independence in daily living, become employable and maintain suitable employment.
Between 2011 and 2016, VR&E applicants increased from 65,239 to 112,115, creating more workloads for program counselors tasked with developing employment goals and services for beneficiaries. Shuman said the Legion recognized the escalating problems associated with VR&E during its 2016 National Convention in which Resolution No. 345 was enacted.
“Our concern is simple – if funding is being increased to process more claims and appeals, and those claims are indeed adjudicated, it would increase the applicant pool for (VR&E),” Shuman said. “If funding is not increased for (VR&E) to hire more staff to process eligible applications, the potential to overload the applicant pool and the program as a whole increases exponentially.”
Shuman said increasing the output of claims and appeals, while not increasing the number of VR&E program counselors, can turn into a full-blown crisis for veterans who are enrolled in the program. If the processing rate of adjudicating claims is increased and no investment is made into VR&E, the Legion fears this unintended consequence will cause greater concern.
“Therefore, The American Legion would encourage this committee to increase funding for the (VR&E) program, which is simply charged with helping veterans become more productive,” he said.
Fortunately, Shuman said the Legion is pleased that the president’s proposed budget calls for $135.5 million to be allocated for the BVA and related information technology (IT) initiatives to reduce the pending appeals inventory.
Enhancing and expanding access to Post-9/11 G.I. Bill education benefits
Shuman said The American Legion applauds the passage of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, which includes $30 million in funding for the VBA to invest in IT and better implement the bill. This legislation also includes a requirement for the VA to make changes and improvements to VBA’s IT program to:
(1) ensure that original and supplemental claims for educational assistance under Chapter 33 are adjudicated electronically; and
(2) that rules-based processing is used to make decisions on claims with little human intervention.
“There is no doubt this bill will help those who have served,” said Shuman. “The American Legion was and is thankful to be a part of the largest improvements to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.”
However, Shuman said additional funding is needed for IT investment at the VBA. The Legion is pleased the Trump Administration shares the same concern as $30 million would not be sufficient to fully and effectively implement the Colmery G.I. Bill.
According to Shuman’s written statement, he said the Legion remains “skeptical as to how far $30 million can be stretched to cover the sweeping improvements of the Colmery G.I. Bill. Several of the new provisions and implied tasks require work or oversight that is not currently supported by existing VBA IT systems, making manual intervention and processing necessary.”
In addition, Shuman said “this could range from broad requirements to scale the Vet Tech Pilot to sending out automated letters of eligibility to new G.I. Bill beneficiaries.
Trump Administration’s plan to cap Post-9/11 G.I. Bill flight training programs at public schools
In 2015, Shuman said, the Los Angeles Times reported that some institutions of higher learning had instituted extreme costs for flight school fees, as there were no caps in place for public schools. Since that time, increased oversight from the VA and State Approving Agencies (SAAs) has resulted in lowered overall expenditures for flight training from a height of $79.8 million in 2014 to $48.4 million in 2016.
One of the external factors responsible for this reduction was a 100 percent compliance survey conducted by SAAs in 2015, which resulted in 12 suspensions and withdrawals due to violations of the VA’s 85-15 rule. Shuman said the mandate to micromanage flight programs is unsustainable, even as institutions learn to adjust to the requirements while hedging veteran enrollment.
“The American Legion understands and applauds why the Trump Administration has chosen to include this in their budget request,” Shuman said. “However, we can only support this provision if the funds saved from implementing the caps is returned to fund other veteran programs such as the G.I. Bill, or bettering the transition process.”