WASHINGTON,—Legislators have reintroduced plans to create a fourth administration within the Department of Veterans Affairs—one dedicated to overseeing veterans’ education, transition and employment benefits. Currently these operations fall under the Veterans Benefits Administration, with VBA handling all veterans’ benefits outside of healthcare and cemetery services. 

As Congress and caregivers alike have begun to recognize that the physical, mental and emotional health of veterans is intrinsically connected to their work, school and home lives, more focus is being given to VA’s efforts to help veterans find education and employment. With most of VBA’s resources focused on handling a backlog of disability compensation claims, the bill’s proponents believe the best way to direct resources to transition benefits is with a dedicated Economic Opportunity and Transition Administration. 

The House approved the bill in May, with support from both sides of the aisle as well as the backing of a number of veterans’ service organizations.

“Because of the scale and scope of the claims and appeals processing reforms in recent years, it has too often been hard for VA’s economic opportunity programs to compete for adequate funding, specialized resources and other prioritization,” Jeremy Villanueva, a spokesperson for the Disabled American Veterans, testified in May before the House VA Committee. “For example, while VBA has boosted resources to support the modernization and streamlining of the claims and appeals process for the past several years, other important programs have actually seen a stagnation of resources and oversight. Between 2014 and 2018, Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment participation increased by approximately 17%, while the funding rose less than 2%.” 

VA officials have noted in the past that the transition from military to civilian life is a particularly fraught time for veterans and that difficulties in gaining employment for obtaining education benefits can exacerbate anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. However, efforts last year to pass a similar bill met with resistance from VA, with the department arguing that such benefits should remain under VBA and that the administration was undertaking a sweeping modernization effort that would improve its benefits processes.

Air Force veteran Thomas J. Russell received help through VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment Service and is now a vocational rehabilitation counselor at the Clarksburg, WV, VAMC. —VA photo

Modernization Effort

That modernization effort comes after years of complaints from veterans and VA counselors about the department’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program. Understaffing and an outdated case management system have historically led to long delays in benefits payments, lack of support for veterans and overall confusion among veterans of how they can access benefits.

A push to hire more counselors last fall has helped VR&E meet its goal of one counselor for every 125 veterans, but the streamlining of its case management system is still underway. Testifying before the House VA Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity last month, VR&E Director William Streitberger told legislators that the department was in the process of incrementally modernizing the program using commercially available software. This follows a previous modernization effort in 2015—one which cost $12 million and ultimately failed.

“I have 100% certainty that I am confident we will deploy this system in the first quarter of 2021 and we will implement components of it as they become available after its acquisition at the end of this fiscal year,” Streitberger said. “There’s never been more oversight of this implementation than we currently have right now.”

Asked how he would define success of an improved case management system, Streitberger said, “The bottom line is how we’re able to provide capacity to counselors to provide face-time with veterans every day. How much more time will they have to spend sitting across from them at their desk dealing with their issue and providing them with guidance? When [counselors] are overworked, and they’re spending most of their time doing administrative tasks, they can’t get to all of their veterans on their caseload to provide their services.”