Veterans Affairs Department

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Veterans Affairs Department

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) operates programs to benefit veterans and members of their families. Benefits include compensation payments for disabilities or death related to military service, pensions, education, and rehabilitation. The VA also guarantees home loans, provides burial services for veterans, and operates a medical care program that includes nursing homes, clinics, and medical centers. Located in Washington, D.C., the VA in 2003 had 224,724 employees, a workforce second in size only to the Defense Department. The department's projected budget for FY 2003 was 459.6 billion.

The Department of Veterans Affairs was established in 1989 as an executive department by the Department of Veterans Affairs Act (38 U.S.C.A. § 201 note). Its establishment came after more than 24 years of effort by members of Congress to elevate the department's predecessor, the Veterans Administration, to cabinet status. Proponents argued that promotion to cabinet level would increase the political accountability of the VA and improve the quality of its services. The Veterans Administration was established as an independent agency by presidential Executive Order No. 5398 of July 21, 1930, in accordance with the act of July 3, 1930 (46 Stat. 1016). This act authorized the president to consolidate and coordinate the U.S. Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions, and the National Home for Volunteer Soldiers.

The Department of Veterans Affairs consists of three organizations that administer veterans' programs: the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration, and the National Cemetery System. Each organization has field facilities and a central office. Each central office also includes separate offices that provide support to the organization's operations as well as to VA executives. Central office managers, including the inspector general and general counsel, report to the highest level of department management, which consists of the secretary of veterans affairs and the deputy secretary.

Board of Veterans' Appeals

The Board of Veterans' Appeals (BVA) is responsible, on behalf of the secretary of veterans affairs, for entering the final appellate decisions in claims of entitlement to veterans' benefits. The board is also responsible for deciding matters concerning fees charged by attorneys and agents for representation of veterans before the VA. The mission of the board (contained in 38 U.S.C.A. §§ 7101–7109) is to conduct hearings, consider and dispose of appeals properly before the board in a timely manner, and issue quality decisions in compliance with the law. The board is headed by a chairperson who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The chairperson is directly responsible to the secretary of veterans affairs. Members of the board are appointed by the secretary with the approval of the president and are under the administrative control and supervision of the chairperson. Each BVA decision is signed by a board member acting as an agent of the secretary. Final BVA decisions can be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

Board of Contract Appeals

The Board of Contract Appeals was established on March 1, 1979, pursuant to the Contract Disputes Act of 1978 (41 U.S.C.A. §§ 601–613). The board is a statutory, Quasi-Judicial tribunal that hears and decides appeals from decisions of contracting officers on claims relating to contracts awarded by the VA or by any other agency when such agency or the administrator for federal procurement policy has designated the board to decide the appeal.

In August 1985 the board's jurisdiction was expanded to include applications for attorneys' fees and expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act, as amended (5 U.S.C.A. § 504 note). Board decisions are final within the VA but may be appealed, either by the government or by the contractor, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Additionally, the chairperson of the board, who is the senior official within the department, is responsible for promoting Alternative Dispute Resolution pursuant to the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act (5 U.S.C.A. § 581 note). Finally, the board is charged with resolving disputes between drug manufacturers and the secretary with regard to provisions of the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992 (38 U.S.C.A. § 101 note) dealing with pharmaceutical pricing agreements.

Health Services

The Veterans Health Administration (formerly the Veterans Health Services and Research Administration) provides hospital, nursing home, and domiciliary care and outpatient medical and dental care to eligible veterans of military service in the armed forces. In 2002 the VA operated 163 hospitals (at least one in each of the 48 contiguous states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia), more than 850 ambulatory care and community-based outpatient clinics, 137 nursing homes, and 73 comprehensive home-care programs, and provided health care to more than 4.5 million people. The administration also provides for similar care under VA auspices in non-VA hospitals and community nursing homes and for visits by veterans to non-VA physicians and dentists for outpatient treatment. Under the Civilian Health and Medical Program, dependents of certain veterans are provided with medical care supplied by non-VA institutions and physicians. The VA medical system serves as a backup to the Defense Department during national emergencies and as a federal support organization in times of major disaster.

The administration conducts both individual medical and healthcare delivery research projects and multi-hospital research programs. It assists in the education of physicians and dentists and in the training of many other health-care professionals through affiliations with educational institutions and organizations. These programs are all conducted as prescribed by the secretary of veterans affairs pursuant to 38 U.S.C.A. §§ 4101–4115 and other statutory authority and regulations.

Veterans Benefits

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), formerly the Department of Veterans Benefits, conducts an integrated program of veterans' benefits. It provides information, advice, and assistance to veterans, their dependents, beneficiaries, and representatives, and others applying for VA benefits. It also cooperates with the Labor Department and other federal, state, and local agencies in developing employment opportunities for veterans and referrals for assistance in resolving socioeconomic, housing, and other related problems. In addition, the VBA provides information regarding veterans' benefits to various branches of the armed forces.

Programs are provided through VA regional offices, medical centers, visits to communities, and a special toll-free telephone service. The programs are available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Compensation and Pension

The Compensation and Pension Service has responsibility for claims for disability compensation and pensions, automobile allowances and special adaptive equipment, claims for specially adapted housing, special clothing allowances, emergency officers' retirement pay, and eligibility determinations based on military service for other VA benefits and services or those of other government agencies. The service also processes survivors' claims for death compensation, dependency, and indemnity compensation, death pensions, burial and plot allowance claims, claims for accrued benefits, claims for adjusted compensation in death cases, and claims for reimbursement for headstones or markers.


The Education Service has responsibility for the Montgomery GI Bill—Active Duty and Selected Reserve, the Post Vietnam Era Veterans' Educational Assistance Program, the Survivors' and Dependents' Educational Assistance Program, and school approvals, compliance surveys, and work study.

Vocational Rehabilitation

The Vocational Rehabilitation Service has responsibility for providing outreach, motivation, evaluation, counseling, training, employment, and other rehabilitation services to disabled veterans. The service also provides evaluation, counseling, and miscellaneous services to veterans and service persons and other VA education programs, as well as to sons, daughters, and spouses of totally and permanently disabled veterans and to surviving orphans, widows, or widowers of certain deceased veterans. Rehabilitation services are provided to certain disabled dependents.

Loan Guaranty

The department has played a major part in the financing of homes since the end of World War II. Loan guaranty operations include appraising properties to establish their value, supervising the construction of new residential properties, establishing the eligibility of veterans for the program, assessing the ability of a veteran to repay a loan and the associated credit risk, servicing and liquidating defaulted loans, and disposing of real estate acquired as the consequence of defaulted loans.


Life insurance operations are conducted for the benefit of service members and veterans and their beneficiaries. The day-to-day processing of all matters related to individual insurance accounts is handled by a regional office and insurance centers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and St. Paul, Minnesota. These two centers provide the full range of functional activities necessary for a national life insurance program. Activities include the complete maintenance of individual accounts, underwriting functions, and life and death insurance claims awards, as well as other insurance-related transactions.

The agency is also responsible for the administration of the Veterans Mortgage Life Insurance Program for those disabled veterans who receive a VA grant for specially adapted housing. In addition, the agency is responsible for supervising the Servicemen's Group Life Insurance (SGLI) and Veterans Group Life Insurance (VGLI) Programs.

Veterans Assistance

The Veterans Assistance Service provides information, advice, and assistance to veterans, their dependents, beneficiaries, representatives, and others applying for benefits administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition, the Veterans Assistance Service cooperates with the Department of Labor and other federal, state, and local agencies in developing employment opportunities for veterans and referrals for assistance in resolving socioeconomic, housing, and other related problems. The service is responsible for maintaining a benefits protection program (fiduciary activities) for minors and incompetent adult beneficiaries. It also provides field investigative services for other VA components.

The service ensures that schools and training institutions comply with VA directives. It also ensures compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000d), Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C.A. § 1681), section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C.A. § 794), and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, as amended (42 U.S.C.A. § 6101).

The service's programs are provided through VA regional offices, VA medical centers, itinerant visits to communities, and a special toll-free telephone service available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

The Veterans Assistance Service also provides information on veterans' benefits to the various branches of the armed forces in the United States and abroad and to veterans residing in foreign countries through U.S. embassies and consular offices. The service also coordinates veterans' activities with foreign governments.

National Cemetery System

The National Cemetery System (NCS) provides services to veterans, active duty personnel, reservists, and National Guard members with 20 years' qualifying service and their families by operating national Cemeteries and furnishing headstones and markers for graves. The NCS provides presidential memorial certificates to the loved ones of honorably discharged, deceased service members, and veterans. The NCS also awards grants to aid states in developing, improving, and expanding veterans' cemeteries.

The National Cemetery area offices (located in Atlanta, Georgia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Denver, Colorado) provide direct support to the 114 national cemeteries located throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

Further readings

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Available online at <> (accessed August 16, 2003).

——. 2003. Federal Benefits for Veterans and Dependents. 2d ed. Indianapolis: JIST.

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


GI Bill; U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims; Veterans' Rights.

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