The bill is divided into nine sections. Title I addresses accountability in the VA, granting expedited removal authority for all VA employees based on performance or misconduct, prohibiting bonuses for employees who have been found guilty of wrongdoing, and affording the VA Secretary additional flexibility in hiring and firing senior executives. Title I of the Veterans First Act also creates the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the VA. Title II aims to improve VA health care by streamlining the requirements for community medical providers to enter into agreements with the VA and by establishing prompt payment standards. The Veterans First Act additionally expands the VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers to all generations of veterans, and expands the services for caregivers to include financial planning and legal services. Furthermore, Title II addresses the VA’s opioid prescription crisis, expanding the Opioid Safety Initiative to include all VA medical facilities and expanding pain management education and training in the department. Title III is intended to ameliorate the three-year average appeal wait time by requiring the VA to launch a pilot program for a streamlined appeals process. Title III also makes it easier for survivors of veterans to receive benefits without filing formal claims, and requires the VA to make average appeal wait time information public. Titles IV – IX are intended to strengthen other VA programs and benefits, such as the department’s education and job placement programs.
Title III is of great interest to attorneys who represent veterans and surviving family members of veterans as it provides the means for faster appeals, makes it easier for surviving spouses (and other dependents) to obtain benefits without filing a formal claim, and allows for oversight of VA regional offices. Disparate treatment from regional offices has been a challenge faced by attorneys who help veterans with either pension or compensation claims, or both.
Although the Veterans First Act has garnered bipartisan support in the Senate, it nonetheless faces major impediments. Firstly, this is a major election year. All 435 members of the House and 34 senators are seeking re-election this fall, leaving little time to vote on the bill. Secondly, the bill faces criticism on multiple fronts. The White House and a group of twelve federal employee unions – including the Senior Executives Association and the Federal Managers Association – have both expressed concern that several of the Act’s provisions undermine the rights of VA employees. Some have also raised questions about the unclear cost of the Act. Finally, some have expressed downsides to the new appeals system proposed in the Veterans First Act. As it stands, the omnibus would not grandfather pending appeals into the new, fast-track system. What, then, would happen to the 450,000 veterans with pending appeals? Furthermore, the current appeals system allows veterans to continue to add evidence to their case files as they move forward in the process, whereas the new system would preclude them from doing so. Thus, although serving to streamline the process, the changes proposed in the omnibus might make the system more difficult for veterans.
Despite these issues, Isakson, Blumenthal, and many others remain hopeful that the Veterans First Act will work to solve the problems of transparency and accountability that have been plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that the bill will initiate changes that positively impact our nation’s veterans.