Louisiana’s Veterans Deserve the Freedom to Choose

(By Rob Maness, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and service-connected disabled veteran)Louisiana is fortunate to call itself home to over 211,000 veterans who have answered the call and selflessly defended our country. These men and women, who have served our nation in uniform deserve our utmost respect, gratitude, and particularly support when transitioning back to civilian life.

As a nation, one critical way we can honor their service is by ensuring they have access to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability benefits they have earned while keeping America safe. However, the process of securing these benefits can be complex and overwhelming. This has left far too many struggling to navigate the system and has led countless veterans to enlist the assistance of experienced partners to guide them through the complicated claims process.

Veterans in the Pelican State are unfortunately not immune from these challenges, and legislators in Baton Rouge have taken note. In an effort to better serve this important community, debate has been started on several bills with the intent of improving the process. This is a laudable goal, and one that lawmakers should be commended for. But some proposals may actually have the opposite effect and make it more difficult for veterans to access the VA disability benefits to which they are entitled. Legislators must therefore take note and proceed with caution.

The crux of the issue stems from the role private consulting agents play in helping to secure VA disability benefits. One of three types of outside assistance that veterans generally engage to navigate the process – in addition to Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) and VA-accredited attorneys – there are competing ideas about the extent to which they should be involved.

Some lawmakers who view private consulting agents with mistrust because the VA doesn’t currently provide an avenue by which they can gain accredited status, have introduced House Bill 496 which seeks to ban the use of private consulting agents for such purposes. While well-intentioned, this bill fails to recognize that veterans often face unique challenges when applying for benefits and that by limiting their options regarding the type of outside assistance that best suits their needs, it may complicate efforts to secure a favorable outcome.

Fortunately, there is a better legislative proposal on the table. Senate Bill 159, introduced by State Senator Stewart Cathey, Jr., would empower veterans to decide what kind of assistance they would like to use when navigating the VA benefits claims process. The bill – which is similar to legislation that Senator John Kennedy has introduced at the federal levelknown as the PLUS for the Veterans Act – recognizes that veterans should have the freedom to choose between private consulting agents, Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs), or VA-accredited attorneys based on their individual circumstances and preferences.

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Senate Bill 159 and the PLUS for the Veterans Act both add additional safeguards and guardrails around the use of private consulting agents. These measures would help protect veterans from any actors that may not have their best interests at heart while still allowing them to benefit from the valuable services that private consulting agents provide. By striking a balance between empowering veterans and ensuring their protection, such legislation demonstrates a deep understanding of the obstacles veterans face and a commitment to finding practical solutions.

It is heartening to see that the bill has passed in the Senate and recently was reported favorably out of committee in the Louisiana House of Representatives. These significant milestones mean we are close to enacting this common-sense legislation. It is now time for leaders in the House to pass the final bill and for the Governor to sign it into law. This will send a clear message that Louisiana stands with its veterans and is committed to providing them with the support they need and deserve.

Those who have sacrificed so much for our country should not have to face additional barriers when seeking the benefits they have earned and should have the choice to enlist the partner that works best for them in navigating the process. By working together to find common sense solutions to this pressing problem, we can honor their service and demonstrate our unwavering commitment to their long-term success.

Rob Maness is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and service-connected disabled veteran. He was previously a candidate for U.S. Senate in the state of Louisiana.

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