VA leadership address suicide prevention, safeguarding veterans benefits, claims appeals
Photo by Jennifer Blohm/The American Legion

VA leadership address suicide prevention, safeguarding veterans benefits, claims appeals

Veteran suicide prevention and safeguarding veteran benefits are two priorities of The American Legion’s legislative agenda for the second session of the 118th Congress. Those priorities and other concerns were addressed with members of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Commission during a panel discussion that included Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) leadership. The discussion was held Feb. 26 during the Legion’s Washington Conference and moderated by VA&R Commission Chairman Autrey James.

James asked questions to the VA staff that were submitted previously by American Legion members from several departments.

Dr. Steve Lieberman, Deputy Under Secretary for Health with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), was asked what research VHA was conducting on emerging therapies to help veterans with PTSD and depression.

“Suicide is our number one clinical priority in Veterans Health Administration. And VA is the leader in this country, I would say in the world, in research in suicide prevention related to depression, related to PTSD, related to many other factors,” Lieberman said.

More than 16,000 veterans nationwide, who have been identified as an increased risk for suicide, have participated in telehealth calls with mental health trained specialists. Lieberman said initial findings show that the calls improved suicide-related coping, quality of life, and reduction in depression symptoms and hopelessness. “That is really showing promise.”

And while the use of psychedelics to help with depression, PTSD and risk factors for suicide are garnering attention, “The studies that have been done are unfortunately very small, and don’t adequately address whether they really work and whether they are safe to use,” Lieberman said. “VA is preparing to sponsor a grant process to study (psychedelics) and study this intensively. We will have proposals come in, we will reward those proposals, and then we will do research and get the answers and hopefully find that it’s helpful.”

Lieberman also reminded commission members to share with veterans that under the COMPACT Act, veterans in acute suicidal crisis can go to any VA or non-VA health care facility for emergency health care at no cost – including inpatient or crisis residential care for up to 30 days and outpatient care for up to 90 days. Veterans do not need to be enrolled in the VA system to use this benefit.

The American Legion urges Congress to pass legislation to restore criminal penalties for persons or companies that represent or charge veterans fees to file; prepare or prosecute initial VA claims without VA accreditation; and to oppose any legislation that would allow unaccredited parties to become legal representatives without completing the accreditation process. Chairman James asked Michael Frueh, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), what the VA is doing to safeguard veterans benefits and assist veterans from being taken advantage of by unaccredited claims companies.

“We decided 2 million claims last year, a record for us,” Frueh said, with 1.6 million veterans awarded new benefits at an average claim amount was $2,000. “That adds up to $12.2 billion if every veteran last year hired a claims consultant, it would have gone to them. It’s a lot money, and I don’t think the work is justified. Especially as Congress set up our process as a process where we are supposed to provide a duty to assist. You know what it’s like to train your service officers. How would you like to hear someone say, ‘For half of your benefit payment, we can help you get it faster?’ They can’t help get it faster. We have a million veterans in que waiting to get decided.”

The VA set up Veteran Scam and Fraud Evasion (VSAFE) that focuses on protecting veterans and their families from scams and to make them aware of the free services they have from people who are accredited. Frueh encouraged VA&R Commission members to “advocate for legislation that strengthens accreditation and strengthens the ability to go after bad actors. It’s illegal to charge for an initial claim, and they do. We would love it if someone would do something about it. It’s illegal to represent someone unless you are accredited. Do something about the accreditation.”

Jaime A. Areizaga-Soto, chairman of the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA), was pleased to announce that the board has recently hired over 40 new judges, going from 90 to now 133. And that 57% of the current board are women and 24% are veterans. “The current board is not only the largest, but the best and most diverse board of judges in our history,” he said. Legionnaires wanted to know how the BVA is addressing the time it takes for a hearing and decisions on legacy appeals.

In 2022, the BVA did 30,000 legacy hearings. Currently, BVA’s number of legacy hearings pending are right above 1,000, Areizaga-Soto said. “That is great news. We are pretty much almost done with the legacy hearing side,” adding that the 73,000 hearings pending are all AMA (Appeals Modernization Act). “We continue to schedule, there isn’t any delay. And we have not seen an increase in our appeals as a result of the PACT Act and the work of the VBA.

“I asked that during my time (as chairman) that we did not want a lag time between the hearing and the decision, and that I preferred the decision be issued by the same judge that does the hearing. Overall, for the second year in a row, our hearing inventory went down. We are on the right track. My goal is to get more decisions. My commitment to you this year is that we will do 111,000 decisions.”

Frueh added that a record was set last year in the number of claims filed – 2.6 million, a 40% increase over 2022. The claims backlog is 380,000 with VBA’s goal to get it back down to 100,000. “We are focused on getting as many claims done as we can,” noting that about 75% of VBA’s daily output are older claims. “We are focused every day on backlogs. We are super focused on not making veterans wait.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Matthew T. Quinn, Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs at the National Cemetery Administration, addressed the VA plaque and urn issue that has been in the news.

In 2020, Congress passed a law that requires the VA to provide the surviving spouse or the widow of a veteran, or widower, a plaque or urn upon request. The law also states that if the widow or widower accepts a plaque or urn, the veteran is no longer eligible for internment in a national VA cemetery, nor is the veteran able to receive a government furnished headstone if they opt to be buried in a private cemetery.

“VA has done nothing but to follow the law. We are working with Congress to try to see what’s the best fix for that,” Quinn said, encouraging commission members that if they want the law changed, to begin advocacy efforts. Chairman James commented that it sounds like a possible resolution from an American Legion department.

Quinn also encouraged Legionnaires to pre-apply for VA burial benefits in a national or grant-funded cemetery. “We are asking veterans to apply, it doesn’t commit you to using a national cemetery, but apply for pre-need eligibility. We will build the case for you, and we will have that as a record so that down the road when the funeral home calls or the family calls (asking about eligibility), we will be able to pull it right up.”