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Shulkin Calls for Advisory Board on VA Benefits Programs

In this Feb. 14, 2017 file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
In this Feb. 14, 2017 file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin has called for a new approach to dealing with the department's vast array of compensation programs while stressing again and again that he is not looking to cut benefits.

A new Veterans Benefit Advisory Board would "bring clarity to what we're trying to do for veterans and what's best and how we can do that in the best way," Shulkin said in an address Monday at the National Press Club.

"Let me be clear though: This is not about taking away benefits from veterans," he said in the speech, repeating it again afterward to reporters: "This is not about taking away benefits."

"This is about making benefits work better for veterans and transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs to do better for years and for generations for future veterans," Shulkin said in the speech. "I think they deserve no less than that."

"This is an area that I believe we can do better in," he said of the VA's method of dispensing mandatory benefits that will total about $95 billion this year. The current system is "far too complex, filled with too much bureaucracy."

In leading up to his proposal for the advisory board, Shulkin went through the long history of U.S. attempts to care for and compensate veterans, from the Continental Congress through the presidency of Abraham Lincoln to the World War II GI Bill and the present day.

The common thread through all the eras was, "Our country is never really fully prepared for the impact of returning veterans," he said. "We always seem to be surprised that these people come back and they have all sorts of issues that need our help."

He added that changes in the scope of benefits and their method of delivery "are always politically contentious, and they're related to the economic conditions of the country."

The current system tends too often to put the VA "in an adversarial relationship with veterans, where they have to come to us and ask rather than we are trying to help them," Shulkin said.

"Lastly, I would say the cost projections always fall short. The actual costs of these programs always tend to be more than what's initially thought," he said.

In outlining what he wants the advisory board to address, Shulkin said, "We have to make simpler benefits determinations.

"Frankly, we're spending too much on administrative costs, and we have to let veterans know what they can expect," he said. "They shouldn't have to constantly be refiling claims to get what they deserve."

In addition, "We have to emphasize service-connection for disabilities so we aren't compensating veterans for age-related issues," Shulkin said. "We have to focus benefits on enabling independence so veterans can succeed on their own, because that's what I think leads toward feeling a sense of well-being."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.