New England is fortunate to have some of the bravest Americans in the country call our region home. More than 700,000 veterans live in the area spanning from Connecticut to Maine. While they are deserving of our honor and respect, not all of them have fortunately been able to access the VA disability benefits to which they are entitled.

As of March 2022, over 240,000 pending claims for VA disability compensation and benefits were considered backlogged. That number will likely grow in future years as claims associated with exposure to toxic burn pits and the Navy’s “Blue Water” herbicide begin to increase. The need to provide as much choice and competition in the VA benefits claims process as possible has never been as apparent.

Unfortunately, well-intentioned but misguided efforts are currently underway in Congress that could make it more difficult for veterans to get access to the disability benefits they deserve. Efforts to reform the current system have some in Congress now looking to criminalize the way many private consulting agents help veterans navigate the VA benefits claims process. That would leave the initiation phase of the claims process solely on the backs of veterans’ service organizations (VSOs) or veterans themselves.

As a 100 percent service-disabled veteran, I have seen first-hand how arduous the VA benefits claims process can be. While I was fortunate enough to have connected with a case worker at a VSO that had the staff and resources to help secure my benefits, not every veteran has been fortunate enough to have had a similar experience. The fact is, funding and expertise are not distributed evenly across the nationwide network of VSOs. Access to veteran benefits should not be dictated by where someone lives, or the quality of the VSO located near them. That’s where private consulting agents can step in to fill the void.

Private consulting agents harness the power and incentives of the free market to help veterans start a benefit claim and assist with each step of the process. These professionals work on a contingency basis, which means that they do not get paid unless there is a benefit increase for the veteran. They are also equipped with an extensive team and systems to help make the process as efficient as possible.

Unfortunately, some in Congress have criticized these enterprises simply because they earn a commission in the process of helping veterans. Earlier this year for example, Congressman Chris Pappas sent a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough asking for a briefing on the “predatory practices” of those outside consultants. While I wholeheartedly agree that any unscrupulous private actors should be shut down and charged with criminal penalties, to outlaw other companies that act in good faith and on the contingency that they achieve a positive outcome for veterans in the process would be a disservice to those who served. A better solution would be reform the VA accreditation system to expand access and choice by making room for enterprises that are compensated on contingency for helping to file an initial VA benefits claim.

The fact is New Hampshire lags the national average in VA Disability compensation, indicating that the congressman’s constituents could benefit by expanding access to such services. Only 19 percent of veterans in New Hampshire currently receive VA disability compensation, below the national average of 23 percent. Part of that may be attributed to the fact that many of the VSOs in the state appear to be inactive or difficult to reach. A quick scan of the VA website indicates that only 9 of 19 VSO reps in the state have a phone number listed and only 6 out of 19 of them have an email address listed. Given the fact that there are nearly 100,000 veterans who call the Granite State home, it appears that this veteran community could be served well by a more robust assistance network.

Since retiring from the military, I have been a tireless advocate for veteran causes. During my time in the Rhode Island General Assembly I served on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and fought to exempt military pensions from state income tax, and I continue to support this community today. Our veterans deserve a benefits claims system that is accessible and provides options to achieve the best possible outcome. That is the least we can do for our heroes who have sacrificed so much.