Recently, VetsFirst Director Ross Meglathery testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’ Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity regarding the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program (VR&E).
Meglathery’s opening remarks stressed the need to provide disabled veterans with the training to reintegrate into society and the workforce. This training serves a two-fold purpose; it allows veterans to work when they otherwise would not be employable and serves as a “thank you” for the services they provided for the nation.
Reintegration into society and finding employment for veterans are the primary goals at VetsFirst, a program of the United Spinal Association. Their core principles stress community integration and independence, timely access to quality VA healthcare and benefits, and protecting the rights of veterans with disabilities. In his testimony, Mr. Meglathery noted that the VR&E program is of great importance to VetsFirst, but also stressed that the program “lacks the resources needed to best assist all disabled veterans in returning to employment.”
Specifically, Meglathery noted that veterans with mental health conditions have poorer VR&E outcomes than those with other disabilities. While veterans are more willing to seek help for mental concerns in recent years, Meglathery noted that there is a shortage of mental health professionals with experience in dealing with veterans’ issues. He also cited evidence indicating that veterans with disabilities believe they will not be able to explain the accommodations they need to rejoin the workforce. Meghathery stressed the need for VR&E vocational rehabilitation counselors to receive training for job placement and disability-related accommodations to help these veterans find “meaningful, significant and consistent employment.”
Meglathery offered recommendations for two particular areas of concern. He stated that Congress should do away with the 12-year VR&E eligibility requirement that is currently in place. To be eligible for benefits, it must be 12 years or fewer since either the servicemember’s date of active military separation or when the VA notified them of their qualified service-connected disability. This is not enough time, he said. Meglathery used himself as an example, noting that it took him time to come to terms with the trauma of war:
“I had first seen combat as a 30 year-old man who seemingly should have been fully mature and self-aware. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to experience combat as an 18 year-old. … Someone who had seen war as an 18 year-old would be roughly about the age when I first saw combat. In that scenario, they would be generally at the end of their VR&E eligibility period. As I have said, 30 years was not enough life experience to know myself. For others, this may likely be the case as well.”
Meglathery also said that he believes that VR&E caseloads are still too high and resources are not sufficient to provide timely results. He asked Congress to appropriate more funding and support efforts to properly staff VR&E. He suggested partnering with non-profit organizations that provide intensive services needed to assist veterans with significant disabilities in returning to and remaining in the workforce.
Meglathery closed by stressing that the real indicator of VR&E’s effectiveness is in the long-term success of the veterans it helps. He suggested that the VA monitor veterans’ employment for at least a year, with a counselor periodically following up. Meglathery noted that this would monitor the effectiveness of the program and also hold employers accountable to their commitment to support VR&E.