Veterans’ Advocacy Groups Have No Fee Scheme Conflict Of Interest

Last week the Daily Caller published an opinion piece by Joanne Butler, a Senior Economics Fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware, titled “The VFW and American Legion’s Veterans Affairs Conflict.” Whatever minimal research went into this poorly crafted piece, both Ms. Butler’s “facts” and the resulting conclusion bear no resemblance to reality and the political system we operate under in the United States.

Having worked as an appellate VA review representative, a lobbyist, a war reporter, and a magazine writer (as well as a stint as an infantryman in Afghanistan) I felt I needed to respond with some facts about the Department of Veterans Affairs, the historical legacy if the issues which are currently in the news, and what role the American Legion and other Veterans Service Organizations (VSO’s) have played in trying to get these problems fixed.

The “conflict of interest” cited in Ms. Butler’s title revolves around a “fee arrangement” which appears in federal law allowing those who had represented claimants in administrative benefits proceedings to be compensated. However, no such conflict exists in actuality, as the American Legion has never once applied for or received compensation from either the federal government or those veterans who would win their case. In fact, were an employee to receive such a “bonus” it would violate our policies and that individual would immediately be seeking new employment.

Unlike a traditional court room, the Department of Veterans Affairs disability process is set up to be non-adversarial. While this doesn’t always play out that way, the VA and the VSOs work together to “perfect” claims before they make them to an adjudicator. In order for a medical condition to be determined to be connected to their service, three requirements must be met: the veteran must have a currently diagnosed medical condition; there must be some record in service of the condition occurring there (or exposure to something which would later manifest in an injury or illness); and a “nexus” statement from a doctor noting that what happened on active duty is the likely culprit for what is ailing the veteran now. Hearings do not have “opposing counsel” arguing against the evidence, or providing other incriminating evidence. A veteran must meet the three requirements, and then becomes eligible for his benefits.

Having thus constructed a “conflict of interest” straw man that does not exist, Ms. Butler opines that “if I was the head of the Legion or VFW, I would be embarrassed that it took a VA inspector general report to reveal the problems on the ground at the Phoenix hospital.” If this were true, one might feel the same way. However, it was not the IG report, nor the previous CNN investigation that alerted us to this issue just recently. Ms. Butler also asks rhetorically “where were the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars when the problems began to bubble up last year and earlier this year?”

Even cursory due diligence would have shown Ms. Butler that we have been acutely aware of these issues for many years. Using just the time frame she mentions, an article discussing the appearance of (now Deputy Director for Healthcare) Roscoe Butler who testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on behalf of The American Legion appeared in March of 2013. It noted that:

“VA has a truly first-rate standard of care,” Butler said. Yet, “veterans aren’t able to access it with anywhere near the ease with which they should. Even the best care in the world is of little service to veterans if they cannot easily schedule timely appointments.”

Further, as that article made clear:

Through its System Worth Saving (SWS) program, the Legion has been acutely aware of wait time problems for a decade. In 2003, the first SWS report noted that – out of more than 300,000 veterans waiting for health-care appointments – more than half had been waiting more than eight months. At one VA medical center in the southeastern U.S., about 14,000 veterans had waited longer than six months for their appointments

The American Legion has a full time division which goes into VA hospitals and accesses their adequacy in meeting the needs of America’s veterans. Ms. Butler’s contention seems to be that we shouldn’t have missed the “secret lists.” However, even the U.S. Congress has been unable to get the information from a recalcitrant VA on that issue. In fact, the four hour hearing which occurred last week (the day before Secretary Shinseki’s resignation) focused solely on why the Committee did not have access to the data it had repeatedly requested. As House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Miller noted in a press release last week:

Today’s VA is a case study in how to stonewall the press, the public and Congress. And as we found out last week, often times officials from across the department have routinely sought to hide information about some of VA’s most pressing problems from the department’s own senior leaders.

Ms. Butler offers three suggestions that she believes will fix the problems at VA.  First, “the Congress and the service organizations need to stop reserving the top job for a veteran.” The American Legion has never called for a specific person to be in charge of the VA, whether veteran or civilian. In fact, were we to do so it would violate our federal charter which states that the American Legion “shall be absolutely non-political and non-sectarian, and shall not be used for the dissemination of partisan principles or for the promotion of the candidacy of any person seeking public office or preferment.” This could jeopardize our status as a 501(C)19 tax exempt non-profit.