Weekly Columns

Veterans and military issues make up about half of the requests my office receives each year for help navigating the complex bureaucracies of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD). Hearing the challenges facing our veterans and service members provides me an opportunity to better understand what needs to be fixed. 

As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee I am actively using the concerns of Arkansas veterans to improve VA policies, expand benefits, services and programs and to resolve the various problems our veterans face within the bureaucracy. In December the committee approved the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program (HVRP) Clarification and Reauthorization Act, legislation I introduced to combat veteran homelessness. The bill included additional provisions related to veteran benefits and services including the GI Bill Fairness Act, which I also introduced to ensure that members of the Guard or Reserve who are wounded in combat are eligible for the same GI Bill benefits as their active duty counterparts.

In 2014, Congress approved and the President signed legislation to provide veterans greater access to health care outside of VA. Over the past year I’ve heard from Arkansas veterans about issues they have had with the implementation of the Veterans Choice Program created by this law. Several months ago were able to get VA to expand the eligibility criteria for the program by reflecting a more accurate measurement of distance between where a veteran lives and the nearest VA facility. I am pleased to see these much-needed improvements and will continue working to ensure this program is successful for veterans in Arkansas. 

My office works daily helping veterans get information on the status of their VA appeals, and to provide information to VA on cases that involve people who have an urgent health or financial crisis. These appeals can take years to process and leave veterans and their families struggling while they wait for a decision. This is an issue that I continue to press with VA officials. Although the department has made good strides to improve the initial paperwork process, there remains an extraordinary backlog that veterans in Arkansas need resolved. I was pleased to learn in recent meetings with national and regional VA leadership that they are tasking additional personnel in 2016 to work on the backlog of appeals, including at the VA Regional Office in Arkansas.  

Another recent change that many veterans will find helpful is the ability to apply in advance for burial in a National Cemetery. Requests for records are emergencies when a veteran or their spouse has passed away and their family needs immediate documentation for burial. This is a great improvement and I encourage veterans and their families to contact their nearest National Cemetery if they would like to take advantage of this new initiative.  

As the son of an Air Force Master Sergeant and veteran, the concerns of all military members, veterans, and their families are always close to my heart. The complicated bureaucracy should never prevent our veterans from receiving the benefits and services they earned. My office is here to help and I will continue to improve accountability at the VA as well as improve veterans’ benefits.

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