WASHINGTON — Improving the benefits system of the VA has become the focus of the department’s secretary, and he’s setting up an advisory board to help.
VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin spoke at the National Press Club Monday about what the department has been working on to improve the benefits of our nation’s veterans.
He first gave the audience a detailed history lesson on veterans benefits in the United States, something Shulkin said that he himself had to learn in order to understand how current benefits came to be.
The conclusions Shulkin said he draws from this history is that “the country … our country … is never really fully prepared for the impact of returning veterans. We always seem to be surprised that these people come back and they have all sorts of issues that need our help.”
“That the changes in benefits that we’ve seen over these 150 years are always politically contentious, and they’re related to the economic conditions of the country. Whether we expand them or essentially have to renege on our commitments to our veterans,” he said.
“And they tend to have no real rationale for why they happen, it’s more opportunistic rather than thinking about this with this system’s approach,” Shulkin added.
Some disability payments, Shulkin said, “look like they really require the veteran to remain disabled. And they create disincentives to recovery, while other of our benefits are enablers help people restore their function and independence.”
The benefits system is also complex and difficult to navigate, he said and includes “built-in systems to maximize getting more disabled. There are some parts that if you’re not above 50 percent service-connected, you will not be able to access other benefits.”
He believes that the most successful benefits programs are “those that are enabling veterans to have meaningful lives and to have independence and security,” such as the GI Bill, home loan program, and group life insurance programs.
Shulkin suggested that the VA’s benefit programs should provide such things as financial security for severely disabled veterans, help with pursing career development, and also with reintegration into civilian life.
He also said he believes the VA “needs to transform into an organization where we are veterans advocates and we facilitate them getting benefits, not being the gatekeeper of benefits decisions.”
Shulkin called for “a new way of thinking about benefits” that includes veterans benefit advisory board that “can bring clarity to what we’re trying to do for veterans and what’s best and how we can do that in the best way.”
“I think as history has shown me, policymakers just haven’t thought strategically about veterans benefits over these past 150 years,” he said. “They’ve just kept on piling on benefits without any clear objective in mind, other than patriotic gratitude and political expedience, sometimes more the latter than the former.”
The original GI Bill was an exception to this, Shulkin said, because veteran service organizations were “looking ahead to the end of the war with clear but limited aims of getting returning veterans back into civilian life and that’s the kind of thinking I need– we need to do again and I look forward to having that discussion with our new veterans benefit advisory board.”
Shulkin concluded by saying that none of this is about taking away veterans benefits, but “making benefits work better for veterans and in transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs to do better for years and for generations for future veterans. I think they deserve no less than that.”