Just before Veterans Day this year, on November 6, 2017, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin made a rare speech: not about the VA health care system, but about veterans’ benefits. He called for a “new way of thinking about benefits” and advocated for the establishment of a veterans’ benefits advisory board to review the entire benefits system.
Need for review of the benefits system
In his speech, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Shulkin pointed to the piecemeal way in which the veterans’ benefits system has evolved over time, giving an extensive history of military benefits in the United States.
“Policymakers just haven’t thought strategically about veterans’ benefits over the past 150 years,” said Shulkin. “They just kept piling on benefits without any clear objective in mind, other than patriotic gratitude and political expedience, sometimes more of the latter than the former.”
This way of approaching policy, he added, has led to a benefits system that is “far too complex, filled with too much bureaucracy.” By way of explanation, he cited veterans’ need to file claims over and over again for increased ratings, and the increasing administrative costs involved in distributing benefits. Administrative costs have risen from $1 billion in 2000 to $5 billion in 2017.
Relationship between the VA and veterans
Shulkin also discussed issues he sees with the VA’s relationship to veterans. The VA, he said, ends up acting as a “gatekeeper” for benefits, rather than facilitating the process and advocating for veterans.
“The system, it appears to me, puts VA in an adversarial relationship with veterans, where they have to come to us and ask rather than we are trying to help them,” he said.
Shulkin also expressed concern that some VA benefits “disincentivize” recovery instead of encouraging independence. “We need more incentives for achieving wellness and independence,” he said. “This should be a system that focuses on veterans’ abilities, not on their disabilities.”
Perhaps anticipating some pushback on these statements, Shulkin was careful to add, “This is not about taking away benefits from veterans. This is about making benefits work better for veterans and 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.”
Shulkin on key aspects of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA)
Though he did not lay out a process or structure for the proposed veterans benefits advisory board, Shulkin did clarify what he sees as the key aspects of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA)—the branch of the VA that deals with benefits as opposed to healthcare.
VBA programs, Shulkin said, were critical in:
- providing financial security for those who are severely disabled,
- providing mental and physical well-being to veterans,
- offering economic and professional opportunities, and
- helping veterans reintegrate back into civilian life.
A veterans’ benefits advisory board, he said, would help reinforce these goals.
“I want to see an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders about rationalizing veterans benefits—a veterans’ benefits 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.”