The Independent Budget
Veterans Agenda for the 116th Congress
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(added January 17, 2019)
Employment and Education
Create an Economic Opportunity Administration Within The VA
- Congress should separate from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) all programs related to economic opportunity and create a new administration within VA focused on economic opportunities for veterans.
Background and Justification
VA is comprised of three Administrations: VBA, Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and National Cemetery Administration (NCA). VBA is in charge of not only compensation and pension benefits for veterans, but also the GI Bill, vocational rehabilitation, housing and business loans, and the broadly defined transition assistance program, which is shared with the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Departments of Labor (DOL) and Homeland Security (DHS). Many of these programs are currently under the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which is overseen by a deputy under secretary. However, this position has been left vacant for some time and it does not appear that the vacancy will be filled any time soon.
Currently, the OEO programs are enmeshed with the myriad of entities that makeup VBA. Compensation, being the largest program, dominates the attention of VBA which makes it difficult for the economic opportunity (EO) programs to get adequate funding, specialized resources, and other prioritization. For example, while VBA has been focused on the modernization and streamlining of the claims and appeals process, other important programs such as Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) have seen a stagnation of resources and oversight. Between 2014 and 2018, VR&E participation has increased by approximately 17 percent while its funding has risen just under 2 percent despite a 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that recommended that further performance and workload management improvements were needed.
Without a deputy under secretary, there has been a lack of leadership, which has frustrated outside entities, such as veterans service organizations, who notice the lack of an advocate for EO programs. Additionally, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has a subcommittee focused exclusively on EO programs further emphasizing the advantage of having a central point of contact for accountability and oversight. Furthermore, the DOD, DHS, and DOL collaborate to manage the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) for out-processing service members, but efforts have been hampered by the lack of a deputy under secretary of the OEO to act as a counterpart to coordinate their efforts at VBA. Since VA does not have the primary role in TAP, The Independent Budget veterans service organizations (IBVSOs) believe having an under secretary for EO would help ensure that VA’s views on TAP initiatives and resources are enhanced.
This nation should have as much focus on the economic opportunities for veterans as it does for their health care and benefits. In reality, not all veterans are seeking VA health care when they are discharged, they are not needing assistance from the NCA, nor are they all seeking disability compensation. However, the vast majority are looking for gainful employment and/or educational opportunities. Congress should recognize the value of these programs by separating them into their own Administration focused solely on economic utilization and growth.
The IBVSOs recommend that Congress enact legislation to separate from VBA all programs currently in the OEO and create a fourth Administration under the VA with its own under secretary whose sole responsibility is the portfolio of EO programs. This new under secretary for EO would refocus resources, provide a champion for these programs, and create a central point of contact for veterans service organizations and Congress.Back to Top
Ensure Veteran Success in Higher Education
- Congress, VA, DOD, and Department of Education (ED) must work together to ensure college-bound veterans have access to quality pre-enrollment consumer information and post-enrollment consumer protections when utilizing their earned education benefits at the college or university of their choice.
- VA must develop quality metrics with which to evaluate student veteran success in higher education, identify potential problems, and develop quantifiable solutions.
- Congress needs to continue investing in campus-based support resources for student veterans to include expansion of the VetSuccess on Campus program or additional programs that support peer-to-peer support or offer resources to develop Veteran Centers of Excellence.
- Congress must also work closely with ED and VA to ensure student veterans are utilizing their education benefits at institutions that are not seeking to prey upon them. Requiring transparency and solid reporting systems will ensure student veterans are given the right tools to utilize their benefits properly.
Background and Justification
In 2009, Congress made a significant investment in the future of our nation’s veterans by commissioning the Post-9/11 GI Bill. In 2017, Congress added to the Post-9/11 GI Bill with the Forever GI Bill that upgraded an already amazing benefit for student veterans.
Nine years into the program, more than one million veterans have already chosen to take advantage of this generous benefit seeking to become our country’s next generation of leaders. However, with the expected drawdown of our military’s active duty forces, VA officials believe we have not yet seen the largest influx of post-9/11 veterans into America’s classrooms.
With such a significant investment in the future success of today’s warfighters, Congress, as well as VA and its partner agencies, have an obligation to ensure veterans not only enroll in college, but that they succeed when they get there. As a nation, we also have the responsibility to ensure veterans do not become victims of fraud, waste, and abuse when they seek to use their benefits. When bad acting institutions in higher education lose their accreditation, close, or go out of business, it is necessary that Congress does not turn its back on veterans enrolled in those schools.
By education industry standards, student veterans are often considered non-traditional students. Veterans often bring significant transfer credits and invaluable life experience to the classroom, and they must often balance significant life obligations that many of their college peers do not have. As a result of the unique characteristics and needs of veterans on campus, the education industry is often not equipped to serve the needs of veterans or to adequately track their progress.
If schools lose accreditation or close, or VA is slow in processing education claims, then veterans who have families are put in even worse situations. They are forced into a predicament where they may potentially be unable to feed their families, pay their bills, or finish their educational goals.
By implementing the IBVSO’s recommendations, Congress and VA must work to ensure collegebound veterans and those already enrolled in higher education make informed decisions on how to best utilize their benefits. It will ensure campuses are prepared to best serve the unique needs of student veterans, and that student veterans are able to successfully obtain their academic goals.Back to Top
Enhance Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Services
- Congress must eliminate the 12-year delimiting period for VA Chapter 31 Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) services to ensure disabled veterans with employment handicaps, including those who qualify for independent living services, qualify for VR&E services for the entirety of their employable lives.
- Congress should study changing the current program eligibility standards to determine if doing so would streamline the process by expanding eligibility to all veterans who have been awarded service-connected disability ratings, regardless of the degree of disability.
- Congress should authorize VA to make available child care vouchers, linked to cost-of-living increases, for veterans who have families and are using a VR&E program.
- Congress must provide sufficient resources for VR&E to establish a maximum client-to-counselor standard of 125:1, or better, and explore new methodologies to formulate a proper client-to-counselor ratio based on the challenges associated with more severely disabled veterans. The IBVSOs recommend changing reporting of the ratio to reflect the VA Regional Offices (VAROs), instead of a nationwide client-to-counselor ratio. This will help address the needs of specific offices and more directly help veterans.
- Congress should authorize VA to create a monthly stipend for those participating in the employment track of VR&E’s programs, creating incentives to encourage disabled veterans to complete their rehabilitation plans, and eliminate the current 12-year eligibility limit for veterans to take advantage of VR&E benefits.
Background and Justification
Vocational rehabilitation for disabled veterans has been part of this nation’s commitment to veterans since Congress first established a system of veterans’ benefits upon entry of the United States into World War I in 1917. Today, VR&E is charged with providing wounded, ill, and injured veterans with an array of services designed to enable veterans to obtain and maintain suitable and gainful employment. In the case of those veterans with more serious service-related disabilities, VR&E is authorized to provide independent living services.
Veterans are eligible for VR&E services and programs if their military discharge is other-than dishonorable and have a VA service-connected disability rating of at least 10 percent, or a memorandum rating of 20 percent or more from the VA. The VR&E program is also accessible to active duty military personnel expecting to be medically discharged with the requisite discharge and anticipated disability rating of at least 20 percent or more from DOD and VA.
The period of eligibility to apply for VR&E services cannot currently exceed 12 years from either the date of separation from active duty, or the date veterans are notified by the VA of a service-connected disability rating. This 12-year application eligibility period can only be extended if a vocational rehabilitation counselor determines a veteran has a serious employment handicap. Participants in VR&E also cannot exceed 48 months of entitlement. The 48-month period of entitlement; however, may also be extended in unique circumstances.
While important adjustments were made in numerous areas, VR&E’s incentive structure for veterans remains primarily aligned with education and training programs with no financial incentive for those seeking immediate employment. Considering the basic costs of living, veterans may be unable to wait until the completion of their program to begin working simply to generate some sort of income. They may be forced to leave the program prematurely simply to provide for themselves or their families. Childcare vouchers, linked to cost-of-living increases, for veterans who have families and are involved in VR&E could help these veterans remain in the program.
Congress must change the eligibility requirements for the VR&E program to increase access to services while increasing subsistence allowances for veterans with dependents. A veteran’s service-connected illnesses and injuries are life-long consequences of service to our nation, and so too should veterans have the ability to utilize VR&E benefits throughout their lifetimes. Service-disabled veterans must be authorized to receive access to VR&E services at any point during their employable lives when service-connected disabilities interfere with their employment.Back to Top
Disabled Veteran Unemployment
- Increase overall awareness and outreach concerning disabled veteran unemployment to include referring eligible veterans to VR&E services.
Background and Justification
Veterans with disabilities continue to struggle in the job market with lower labor force participation rates compared to veterans without disabilities. Employment challenges are even greater for veterans with the highest disability ratings. Veterans who have a disability rating of less than 30 percent were about 40 percent more likely to be engaged in the workforce than veterans with a 60 percent or higher disability rating.  Only about four in every 10 veterans with a 60 percent or higher disability rating participated in the labor force in 2017.  This growing labor force participation disparity exists for Gulf War-era II (post-9/11) veterans who have served on active duty since September 2001. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data showed that Gulf War-era II veterans without a disability were 12 percent more likely to be in the labor force than Gulf War-era II veterans with disabilities. 
The total number of veterans with a serviceconnected disability increased from 2,225,289 in fiscal year (FY) 1986 to 4,356,443 in FY 2016.  However, in FY 2016, only around 135,000 veterans used the vocational rehabilitation benefit.  Veterans who have at least a 10 percent rating are eligible for vocational rehabilitation benefits. The number of veterans who are service-connected compared to the number of veterans who are receiving vocational rehabilitation benefits is staggering. It is obvious VA must do a better job to address the lack of veterans using this benefit.Back to Top
VA Pension/Work Disincentives
- Work disincentives in the VA pension program should be re-examined and policies toward earnings should be changed to parallel those in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.
Background and Justification
Many veterans, who served honorably and were discharged in good health, later acquire significant disabilities. As a consequence, eligible veterans will qualify for VA’s non-service-connected pension. VA pension is often likened to SSI under Social Security. However, SSI recipients have access to a work incentive program whereby their public benefit is gradually reduced as their earned income rises. Unlike SSI recipients, VA pensioners face a “cash cliff” in which benefits are terminated once an individual crosses an established earnings limit. Because of a modest work record, many of these veterans or their surviving spouses may also receive a small Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefit that supplements their VA pension. If these individuals attempt to return to the workforce, not only is their SSDI benefit terminated but their VA pension benefits are reduced dollar for dollar by their earnings.
In 1984, under Public Law 98–543, Congress authorized VA to undertake a four-year pilot program of vocational training for veterans awarded a VA pension. Modeled on the Social Security Administration’s trial work period, veterans in the pilot program were allowed to retain eligibility for VA pension up to 12 months after obtaining employment. In addition, they remained eligible for VA health care up to three years after their pension terminated because of employment. Running from 1985 to 1989, this pilot program achieved some modest success. However, it was discontinued because, prior to VA eligibility reform, most catastrophically disabled veterans were reluctant to risk their access to VA health care by working. The VA Office of Policy, Planning and Preparedness examined the VA pension program in 2002 and, though small in number, seven percent of unemployed veterans on pension and nine percent of veteran spouses on pension cited the dollar-for-dollar reduction in VA pension benefits as a disincentive to work. Now that veterans with catastrophic non-service-connected disabilities retain access to VA health care, loss of access to medical care is no longer an impediment to work, but the VA pension “cash cliff” remains a barrier.Back to Top
Strengthen Veteran-Owned Small Business (VOSB) Programs
- Congress must take the necessary steps to prevent excessive delays in awarding contracts to Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSBs) and VOSBs by requiring all federal agencies to use a singlesource verification database.
- All federal agencies must meet the set-aside goal of not less than three percent of the total value of all prime and subcontract awards to businesses controlled by service-disabled veterans each fiscal year.
- DOL and VA must improve oversight and assist in development and implementation of stronger strategies to reach the federally mandated minimum three percent procurement goal.
- Congress should revise the enforcement penalties for misrepresentation of a business as a VOSB or SDVOSB from a reasonable period of time as determined by the VA Secretary to a period of not less than five years.
- Congress must establish a reasonable transition period for SDVOSBs to retain federal protected status following the death of the disabled veteran owner.
Background and Justification
The federal government’s support of VOSBs and SDVOSBs contributes significantly to restoring veterans’ quality of life while aiding in their transitions from active duty.
Section 502, Public Law 106-50, of the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999, codified “the Government-wide goal for participation by small business concerns owned and controlled by service-disabled veterans shall be established at not less than [three] percent of the total value of all prime contract and subcontract awards for each fiscal year.”
Many federal agencies have not reached the government-wide three percent goal of set-aside contracts, therefore a veteran’s ability to compete for contract awards remains problematic. Federal agencies must be held accountable to meet the federal procurement goals outlined by Executive Order No. 13360 and sections 15(g) and 36 of the Small Business Act, which gives agency contracting officers the authority to reserve certain procurements for SDVOSBs.
Congress should enact legislation requiring the federal government make set-aside goals of not less than three percent mandatory objectives rather than goals. Congress should require underperforming federal agencies to make up shortfalls in achieving these objectives in the subsequent fiscal year.
Because of changes in the verification system, timely verification continues to be an issue for SDVOSBs and VOSBs. According to reports from both the GAO and VA’s Office of Inspector General, fraud continues in the Veterans First Contracting Program. VA must hire and train a sufficient number of employees to quickly and effectively certify and re-certify veterans’ small businesses.
Finally, while acquiring an initial federal contract and meeting its many prerequisites may be a big challenge for SDVOSBs, the death of a servicedisabled business owner presents an even greater obstacle for their survivors. Surviving spouses or children may lose the SDVOSB or VOSB status in its entirety when the veteran dies.
Currently, surviving spouses of 100 percent disabled veteran business owners have a 10-year period to re-categorize the business after the date of the veteran’s death if the death is related to their serviceconnected disability. All other surviving spouses have one year to transition if the contract is through VA, and loss of status is immediate if the contract is held by any other federal agency.
Accommodations must be made so businesses built and operated by ill and injured veterans can continue to thrive and support not only the owner’s family, but also the families of those who are employed through these SDVOSBs.Back to Top
Employment and Education EndnotesDisabled Veteran Unemployment
- News Release, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Situation of Veterans – 2017 (Mar. 22, 2018) https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/vet.pdf.
- National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, Office of Enterprise Integration, Department of Veterans Affairs (2018) https://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/utilization/SCD_Rating.xlsx
- National Center for Veteran Analysis and Statistics, Office of Enterprise Integration, Department of Veterans Affairs (2018)https://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/utilization/Summary_of_Veteran_Benefits.xls