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Transfer of Power & VA Benefits

Video Transcription:

Brad Hennings: Welcome, this is Brad Hennings and Courtney Ross with
Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick. We are here for CCK On Air and we’re here to talk a little bit about the transition of power. Now that we’ve hit 20 21 and we have a new administration that has been inaugurated, and that Administration is the Biden Harris Administration. And so we wanted to talk a little bit about how this affects the Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans’ benefits in general. So President Biden’s inauguration yesterday, January 20th, 2021, ushers in a number of changes across every major governmental department including the VA. So let’s talk a little bit about who is the current VA secretary. Courtney, who is in charge right this moment?

Courtney Ross: Yeah. Thanks, Brad. So as of yesterday Inauguration Day, the current acting secretary for VA is Dat Tran. He is going to work as acting second secretary until President Biden’s pick is confirmed by the Senate. Tran has worked at VA for more than 10 years and prior to that, he actually worked as a staff member on the Senate VA Committee. The confirmation hearing for President Biden’s pick, and he’s nominated Denis McDonough as Secretary of the VA is set for January 27th, and so Dat Tran will act as secretary until that day assuming he is confirmed.

Brad: Okay, so let’s talk a little bit about President Biden’s pick for the Department of Veterans Affairs. So if he is confirmed by the Senate and we have every indication that Mr. McDonald will be confirmed by the Senate, he would only be the second non-veteran to hold the office. Now, can you tell us a little bit about Mr. Mcdonough’s profile?

Courtney: Yes, so he actually formerly worked as the white house chief of staff in the Obama Administration. He also worked formally as a deputy National Security advisor and so he has a lot of experience, but as you mentioned he is not a veteran himself and is the only second non-veterans secretary.

Brad: Now, what so what was the reaction of the veterans’ community, in particular, the veteran service organizations who are very involved in veterans issues? What did they think about this nomination?

Courtney: Yes. I think it was a bit of a mixed reaction. I think a lot of the organizations were hoping to see a nominee who was a veteran and a post-9/11 veteran who served in the post-9/11 conflicts and wars. And obviously, President Biden’s nominee does not fit into that category. So while he has a lot of experience, I think it was done a mixed reaction because he is not a veteran himself and he is not a post-9/11 veteran.

Brad: I think that is a really important thing to mention that there were a lot of folks who were hoping that it would be a post-9/11 veteran and it would be sort of a new generation of veterans serving their fellow veterans. That being said, I think those are all very valid concerns and criticisms. I think the positive spin the number of people puts out is that Denis McDonough was a chief of staff, which is an incredibly powerful position in Washington, that he knows how to get things done, that he has relationships with many of the other members of the Biden Administration, and the hope is that VA will have a voice, maybe in ways that it has not always had because of the political skills of Mr. McDonough. So we will have to wait and see. So how about other top VA officials? Who do we expect to see any changes in other top positions throughout the VA that had to do more with operational day to day activities?

Courtney: Yes, so there are some changes and then there are others who we expect to remain in their current positions. So for example, Cheryl Mason, who is the current Chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, is expected to stay on in that role. Richard Stone, who is the Executive in Charge of the Veterans Health Administration, is expected to stay on. And then we’re going to see some changes in other positions like the acting deputy secretary is expected to be filled by Carolyn Clancy. And then the Acting Under Secretary of Benefits is expected to be Thomas Murphy. And so those people have experience with VA in the past and they worked in different VA positions, but they are going to be new to those specific positions.

Brad: And so from the benefit side the most significant appointees there is the fact that the Acting Under Secretary for Benefits is going to be Thomas Murphy that is within the Veterans Benefits Administration and they are the ones who control the education of Benefits at the regional office level, and the fact that Chairman Mason, Cheryl Mason is staying on at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals as part of her six-year term. They are the ones that handle the cases on appeal at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. I just want to also mention that Richard Hipolit is going to be Acting General Counsel, and that is an important position because the General Counsel provides legal advice across the department, including regarding veterans benefits, and it is the General Counsel’s role to defend the department at the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. So getting into that, are we going to see any changes at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which is an independent federal court outside of the VA?

Courtney: So the President is responsible for nominating judges at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims when one of them leaves their post, and they have 15-year terms that they serve. So while the president does have that power, no immediate changes are expected with the new administration in terms of changes with the current judges.

Brad: Okay. So let’s get into before we get into some of the other new political appointees at VA. What are these changes mean for veterans? What’s the practical impact of these changes for all the veterans that VA is serving?

Courtney: Practically speaking, there is no immediate impact on any VA benefits, so claims are going to continue to be processed as they have been, veterans will continue to receive their disability compensation and other VA benefits, appeals will continue to be processed as they have been. So the day-to-day practical operations of the claims process and the appeals process will remain unchanged by the Personnel changes. And one thing I think to keep in mind, to moving forward, is that there are changes coming under the 2021 NDAA, which is the National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed at the end of December. And we can highlight some of the changes to Veterans Benefits that were included in that, but the new Administration will be responsible for implementing those new laws that were just passed. So those are some changes veterans can expect to see, but again practically speaking day-to-day operations of how their claims in their appeals are processed in the payment of their monthly benefits will remain unchanged.

Brad: So this should be pretty much business as usual at VA for a veteran who is applying for benefits, receiving benefits, going in for healthcare, any of those things. It should seem to the casual VA user as pretty seamless, right? Okay. So what about– are there any, aside from the NDAA implementation and the issues associated with that, what are some of the other big issues that this new administration and these new political appointees are going to have to handle?

Courtney: Yeah, and before I answer that, I want to mention, too, that CCK live is going to be doing a separate video on the specific benefits that have been included in the NDAA. So more specifics on those benefits are coming as well. We’re going to provide additional sources. But to answer your question, Brad, some other issues or challenges the administration will have to deal with, including filling thousands of staff vacancies at VA offices across the country, dealing with veteran homelessness issues among veterans that have been worsened by the current pandemic. We’re living through continuing to focus on issues surrounding suicide rates among veterans and how to combat that, and assist veterans. And there is a continuing backlog of claims and appeals that are pending, especially among the pandemic, some of which have been slowed down by different issues resulting from the pandemic. So how to tackle those backlogs that continue to grow, how to implement electronic health records and information, how to move forward with that. And I think expanding caregiver assistance is another issue that the administration will need to focus on and figure out how to navigate and move forward with implementing some of that.

Brad: So it sounds like there is going to be a lot on the plate of the new Administration as there is in any new Administration and extra challenges that have been frankly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and how it particularly impacted veterans and VA beneficiaries. I just wanted to talk about a few other additional announcements in terms of the Biden Administration appointees. I am not going to go through all of them. These are folks that have been put in particularly as political appointees by the new Administration. They are often acting appointees. So it’s unclear if they will stay in these rules long term, but they are certainly in the roles as of yesterday or today with the inauguration. And one of the things worth mentioning is Chris Diaz is the acting chief of staff, and so he will be assisting Dat Tran in the running of the department before Denis McDonough is confirmed as the new secretary. He is also the White House liaison and is located in the office of the secretary. So I think he will be playing an important role. Meg Kabot or Kabat– I am not sure how to pronounce her name. She is a Senior Advisor for Families, Caregivers, and Survivors in the Office of the Secretary. Many of these folks have extensive experience both at the VA and supporting service members. Many of them are veterans themselves. Raymond C. Kelly is the liaison to the veteran service organizations. That is an incredibly important role. Ya Wei Jenny Wang is going to be the Director of Mission Operations in the Office of the Secretary, and Tamika Ruth Jackson is a Special Counsel in the Office of General Counsel. And again, many of these folks have served the national security or agency. They have served for the various branches of the military. They have served in VA and they all appear quite qualified to take on their new roles. Obviously, time will tell as to what happens. With that, do you have any closing thoughts about the transition of power here in 2021 and the new Administration, Courtney?

Courtney: I will just say that you know treat the transition of power is something that happens every four years, in terms of leadership of, obviously, the country in different administrations, but just to remember again that the practical consequence is that there should not be any interruption in filing for benefits, your pending claims or appeals that will remain uninterrupted business as usual as you said, Brad. So, while this is meant to be informative and provide a resource for who is now going to be filling leaderships in VA, not to be worried about what the day-to-day practical consequences are.

Brad: The good news is in terms of any transition with different administrations is that the Department of Veterans Affairs has historically, and we like to thank continues to remain a very bipartisan department. It is neither democratic nor republican in particular, and that is typically the mission of the VA is the same regardless of party, regardless of administration, and that’s to take care of those borne the battle. Their families, their dependents, and that work will continue on regardless of who is the president, who is in the administration, who is the secretary. And the hope is that the new administration will be successful in taking care of veterans just as the hope is for every administration, that they get the funding the VA needs, that they take action to help our nation’s veterans and their dependents, and survivors. With that, thank you for joining us. Again, this is a Brad Hennings and Courtney Ross with Chisholm Chisholm and Kilpatrick or CCK. We have been on talking about CCK On Air, and we hope that you visit our website at CCK-law.com or visit us on our various social media platforms.