Military Update: Disability support squeeze has a past that’s not so pretty
Wary of rising disability retirement costs, the Department of Defense under then-Secretary Caspar Weinberger quietly sought and received an internal legal opinion that, to this day, tamps down the number of wounded or ill servicemembers awarded military disability retirement.
The March 25, 1985, memo from the DOD office of general counsel, which only recently came to light, gave DOD health officials a green light to restrain military disability ratings without a change in law.
They did so by directing the services to stop setting disability awards based on all service-connected ailments found during medical evaluations, and start basing them only on conditions that leave members unfit for duty.
The policy change took effect in February 1986 with a revised DOD instruction to services. Its impact can be profound on individuals, particularly in wartime. The Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission is studying the effects and its chairman this month sounded an alarm.
The advantages of receiving disability retirement, which requires a 30 percent or higher disability rating, are great for members with less than 20 years in service. Besides an immediate annuity, disabled retirees and their families gain lifetime access to Tricare, to base shopping privileges and to a host of other perks tied to “retiree” status.
Veterans with disability ratings of zero percent to 20 percent receive only a lump-sum severance payment upon discharge. They can apply to the Department of Veterans Affairs for a higher rating and often will get one. But VA care isn’t available to families and VA doesn’t offer baselike support services.
The experience of Army National Guard Spc. Kenneth Parham, 47, shows the impact of the 1986 policy shift on disability awards today. In April 2005, Parham was in the gun turret of a Humvee when it drove over a bomb buried beneath a road outside Kirkuk, Iraq. The explosion tossed his Humvee high into the air. It was Parham’s third contact with an improvised explosive device in five months. This one collapsed a lung, fractured ribs and damaged discs in his neck and back.
Today, the once-vigorous Parham needs a motorized cart to shop in stores. He has chronic neck and back pain. He must walk slowly, sit frequently and can’t lift more than 20 pounds.
Because he can’t wear a helmet or his carry a rucksack, the Army has found the former Marine unfit for duty. It plans to discharge Parham with a 20 percent rating and about $40,000 in severance. Soon he will travel from his home in Lewiston, Idaho, to Fort Lewis, Wash., to appeal that rating decision before a physical evaluation board.
His wife, Cheryl, said service-connected ailments that the Army ignored in setting the 20 percent figure include post-traumatic stress disorder with nightmares, a weakened leg, sleep apnea, high-blood pressure and arthritis.
Injured war veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming more aware of the critical 30 percent threshold. Some credit for that goes to retired Army Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, chairman of the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission. Scott spotlighted the value of 30 percent ratings and ruffled feathers of DOD officials before a recent Senate hearing when he said the higher cost of disability retirement, versus severance pay, gives DOD “a strong incentive” to award 20 percent or less.
No service does it more often than the Army, according to fresh service data released by Scott. From 2000 through 2006, the Army gave ratings of 30 percent or higher to 13 percent of soldiers deemed disabled. The Navy awarded disability retirement to 36 percent of its disabled members. The Air Force number was 27 percent and the Marines Corps’ 18 percent.
More troubling, Scott suggested, were data showing Army awarded a zero percent rating to 13,646 soldiers that it found unfit for duty.
Scott said he wasn’t speaking for the commission. But he urged DOD officials to allow the services to begin setting disability awards based on all service-connected disabilities found.
To ease rating disparities across the services, and between DOD and VA, he recommended that the VA alone conduct all medical evaluations and set all disability ratings before members leave service.
Col. Andy Buchanan, deputy commander of the Army’s Physical Disability Agency, said he would quibble with some of the commission’s data but clearly there are troubling disparities in ratings.
“I know where we’re different right now, but I have to find out why,” Buchanan said. He has recommended an independent audit of service disability awards to identify the factors creating the service disparities. But Buchanan, in our phone interview, denied that the PDA or individual evaluation boards operate with any concern for how rating decisions affect Army budgets.
The Army does not follow VA criteria to rate every condition. For example, the VA rates some sleep apnea as 50 disabling, higher than the loss of a limb, Buchanan said. Also, unlike the VA, the Army does not presume that every medical condition that surfaces while in service is “service-connected.”
“We’re pretty rigid — and that may be why we’re perceived as stingy — about following the rules, looking for evidence,” Buchanan said.
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