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The United States has a special department for dealing with veterans’ issues, known as the US Department of Veteran Affairs. This government agency operates with cabinet-level status, meaning that its head sits on the Cabinet of the United States – a collection of the most senior officers of the US government’s executive branch. The duty of the cabinet is to advise the President, and to help him carry out his duties. The officer that sits on the Cabinet to represent the Department of Veterans Affairs is the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Currently, Eric Shinseki). The VA did not gain this status until 1989, when President George H.W. Bush pushed for the inclusion of the Department of Veterans affairs on the Cabinet.
What is the Department of Veteran Affairs?
The Department of Veterans Affairs is a relatively new agency within the US Government, considering that it was not formed until 1930. Prior to 1930, veterans’ issues and veterans’ benefits were handled by military branches, state governments, or even municipalities. After World War I, veterans’ issues and benefits were handled largely by the Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department, and the National home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. However, experiences after the war led to the realization that Veterans’ issues should be handled by a more streamlined organization. Hence, Congress authorized the President’s creation of the Veterans Administration in 1930, which took over all three aforementioned agencies.
The Veterans Administration has always played a crucial role in delivering ongoing healthcare to veterans, who may receive medical care from the Veterans Administration’s medical centers. This health care system – often referred to as “the VA” – began with 54 hospitals in 1930. Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs operates 171 medical centers, 350 outpatient centers and clinics, 126 nursing homes, and 35 domiciliaries. These facilities provide comprehensive health care to veterans, including medical, surgical, and rehabilitative support.
Benefits Administered by the Dept. of Veteran Affairs
The Department of Veterans Affairs is also responsible for administering various benefits that veterans are entitled to, such as educational benefits that have been made possible for veterans of various conflicts since World War II. In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs is responsible for handling benefits including disability compensation, pensions, home loans, life insurance, vocational rehabilitation, survivors’ benefits, medical benefits, and burial benefits. The Department also spends a considerable amount of time reaching out to veterans to ensure that they are aware of all of the benefits that they can take advantage of.
Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs has three distinct subdivisions. The first is the Veterans Health Administration, which is charged with the provision of healthcare to veterans, and also handles biomedical research initiatives. The Veterans Benefit Administration manages registration of veterans with the Veterans Administration, determines which benefits veterans might be eligible for, and maintains the Department’s Home Loan Guaranty program, insurance programs, Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment programs, Education (GI Bill) programs, and Compensation and Pension programs. Lastly, the National Cemetery Association provides burial and memorial benefits for veterans, and maintains Veterans Administration cemeteries located throughout the United States.
The burdens that are placed on the Veterans Administration are largely determined by wartime activities. During times of war, the Veterans Health Administration experiences an increase in demand for its medical and healthcare resources, such as nursing home beds, rehabilitation services, mental health services, and more.
The Veterans Health Administration determines care and cost priorities for healthcare based on service-related disabilities/injuries, income, and assets. Those with 50% or higher service-related disabilities (as determined by the regional VA office rating board) are entitled to comprehensive healthcare and medication at no charge. Service-related injuries or ailments are those that are directly related to a veteran’s military service career. Those that have lessened qualifying factors, but meet certain income level requirements, are required to make co-payments for medical care that treats non-service-related injuries or ailments, and must pay $9 per 30 day supply of prescription medication. VA nursing home and dental care benefits are more restrictive, and those seeking them must meet special qualifications. Reserve service members and National Guard service members that served within the United States during peacetime, or have no service-related disability, are usually not eligible to receive health benefits from the Veterans Health Administration.
Recently, the Veterans Administration has struggled with the costs of providing care to veterans. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed a great burden on the Veterans Health Administration’s resources, since extremely large numbers of injured veterans, and veterans with mental health issues, have been returning to the United States. As a result, the Veterans Administration has been receiving more disability claims than it has ever been equipped to handle, and throughout the 2000s, the VHA generally had a backlog of pending disability cases numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Medical care accounts for the largest portion of Veterans Administration spending. Recently, it has accounted for 87% or more of the agency’s expenditures. According to the 2011 Costs of War report issued by Brown University, it is believed that the cost of providing care for veterans of the War on Terror will peak in 30 to 40 years after the end of combat, resulting in medical and disability costs between $600 billion and $1 trillion dollars.
Recently, the Veterans Administration has been able to offer improved educational benefits to veterans. Under George W. Bush, a new GI Bill doubled the education benefit value available to veterans, resulting in an increase from $40,000 to $90,000 in benefits. This guaranteed that veterans received (in most cases) 100% tuition coverage at state universities. In addition, veterans with at least three years of service are entitled to a monthly housing stipend that will accompany their education benefits. In August 2009, President Barack Obama extended the bill, at a cost of $70 billion dollars over the next ten years. The new GI Bill also includes a provision that extends the GI Bill benefits to the spouse and children of service members that are killed in combat. In addition, service members that reach their ten year service anniversary are free to transfer their GI Bill education benefits to their dependents, such as a spouse or children.