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House veterans' panel chairman frustrated by VA

Sep. 15, 2012 - 09:37AM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 15, 2012 - 09:37AM  |  
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There's frustration in the voice of Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, as he describes what he sees as the glacial pace of change in veterans programs, and the disconnect he sees between Veterans Affairs Department workers and the problems facing the nation.

One of his prime concerns is the Post-9-/11 GI Bill, a key ingredient of a multifaceted effort to help veterans get jobs. In an interview, Miller said the 3-year-old program still has problems with such basic functions as timely and accurate payments to beneficiaries.

In recent meetings with veterans' groups, Miller said he learned "some students were still having trouble getting checks" for the fall term.

Another area of frustration is the large and constantly growing pile of disability and benefits claims at VA, Miller said. VA has been focusing on changes to its claims processing system, with a goal of eliminating errors so that claims don't have to be redone a significant reason why almost 900,000 claims are pending in the system.

"There has to be a way for VA to fulfill the commitment to these men and women in a timely fashion," Miller said, though he admits he doesn't have a solution. "If I had a magic wand, I would wave it, but I don't."

Still, Miller doesn't think VA's processing system is the core problem. He notes that the complicated application process makes it difficult for a veteran to file a correctly completed and documented claim without assistance.

"Because of the complexity of the claim today, some veterans are finding the necessary documentation is lacking," he said.

Additionally, Miller was unhappy to discover VA has been holding expensive professional and training conferences at a time when both the department and the nation have pressing financial needs. He called it "very disappointing," and said the people who organized the meetings appeared to be "completely unaware of the financial peril the country is in."

But under the leadership of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, the department has done some things well, Miller said. He named the rapid enrollment of unemployed veterans into a program that that he sponsored that provides an additional year of education benefits to teach certain veterans new skills for high-demand occupations.

The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, available to veterans aged 35 to 60 who have used up their other education benefits, holds the promise of helping almost 100,000 people get jobs within the next two years.

"It appears the program is working," Miller said. He quickly added: "That does not diminish in any way the [veterans'] committee's oversight role that programs like VRAP require."

Small problems that have arisen, such as glitches with the VRAP website and concerns that some high-demand occupations were not initially covered, have been quickly resolved, Miller said. "I wish VA was as responsive with other programs as it has been with VRAP."

Miller also credits the Defense Department with coming up with a pilot program to improve transition assistance counseling for separating service members. The new plan offers more help and customized assistance aimed at individual needs.

He said he likes what he sees in the pilot program, but is not yet certain that military leaders are fully on board with the idea of granting extended time away from duties for troops to get all of the help available.

"It is going to take some time in order to get DoD to have total buy-in on the true value of TAP," he said. "This is now much more than checking a box for the transitioning service member."

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