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Disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs would reach veterans sooner, and with special swiftness for severely wounded veterans and their families, under legislation to upgrade the VA disability rating process unanimously passed by the House Wednesday (July 30).

The Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Modernization Act (HR 5892) is the first major bill that freshmen Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y) has led through the House as chairman of veterans' affairs subcommittee on disability assistance.

In an interview, the 60-year-old Hall, a professional musician, was upbeat as though he had written and produced another hit song. In this case the reviews will come from veterans and their families; from Senate colleagues who also must embrace the bill's 13 provisions if they are to become law; and, in November, from voters in his Hudson Valley district.

"I'm thrilled," Hall said. "I've co-sponsored and worked on many other bills, but this is the first one I shepherded through committee and worked on for a year. It's my first major piece of legislation so, to have it pass with all green up on the board, was really exciting."

As the 429-0 vote came in, Hall said he looked for Rep. Doug Lamborn (Colo.) on the House floor to thank the subcommittee's ranking Republican for his contributions on the bill.

Hall's bio shows he left college early to pursue a musical career. In 1972 he co-founded the band Orleans and co-wrote numerous popular songs including "Still the One" and "Dance with Me." He recorded with other performers too including Bonnie Raitt, Chet Atkins and Linda Ronstadt.

But in discussing highlights of HR 5892, Hall sounded like a seasoned policy wonk comfortable discussing every detail. He said he is cautiously confident that the Senate, at a minimum, will include most of the bill's provisions in their own omnibus VA benefits bill this fall.

"There are some very good things for veterans here, especially for severely injured veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq," Hall said.

Here are highlights:

PARTIAL DISABILITY RATINGS -- For veterans who suffered amputations, paralysis from spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries or other indisputably severe conditions, VA would be required to issue partial disability ratings as soon as veterans or their families file claims. It's not right, Hall said, that some severely wounded veterans and their families still wait months for VA to begin paying compensation.

We require the VA to start paying from day one on a severely injured disabled veteran whose injury is not in dispute," Hall said. "To take a graphic case, if you go to Iraq with two legs and come back with one, you might have eight other aspects to your claim --visual, auditory, shrapnel wounds, et cetera. The average time right now to adjudicate an entire claim is over six months. But why make a veteran wait for that part of the claim not in dispute, especially since we have record numbers of suicides, divorces and bankruptcies among veterans."

VA RATING SCHEDULE -- VA would have to establish an 18-member advisory panel of disability experts to recommend how to overhaul the decades-old Veterans Affairs Schedule of Rating Disabilities (VASRD). Revisions should raise compensation levels to cover loss of quality of life as well as lost earnings capacity, the sole yardstick today. The revised schedule also should reflect advances in medicine and technology. A plan and timeline for making changes should be submitted to Congress within three years.

"We're requiring a first top-to-bottom reexamination of the rating system," Hall said. The VA rating schedule today, he added, "differs greatly" from that used by Social Security, private insurers or medical institutions.

"It has not been examined thoroughly in 50 years" and so it fails to reflect "huge leaps forward" in medicine or "the kind of injuries one finds on the battlefield today," Hall said.

VA RATERS' WORK CREDITS -- VA also would be directed to study and revise the system of work credits given raters and adjudicators of compensation claims. Credits toward "end-of-year bonuses," Hall said, now emphasize to speed over thoroughness in claim processing. That leads to more errors, more appeals and more reopened cases, he said.

The problem is most acute for severely injured veterans having eight-to-10 part claims. Rather than base performance entirely on how quickly such claims are settled, Hall said, some performance credit should be given for how quickly compensation starts to these veteran even if processing the entire claim takes six months or longer.

"That goes hand-in-hand with the other section requiring immediate payment of the severe injury," Hall said.

Another provision in the bill would force VA to improve information technology so its computers readily accept DoD medical reports recorded electronically from time of injury to discharge.

Others provisions aim to reduce claim processing times and improve consistency in decisions across VA regions for similar injuries and ailments.

Surviving spouses or children would be able to stand in for veterans who die during the claim process rather than having to file their own claims anew starting again in the VA regional office.

The bill also takes aim at the "hamster wheel" effect of claim appeals, urging administrative law judges to decide all relevant issues raised by claimants rather than turning back cases on select deficiencies while ignoring other arguments presented. VA also would be required to open up new "survivor affairs" offices so that survivors of veterans "don't have to wade through the whole VA system to get their benefits," Hall said.

"It's a composite of a year's worth of hearings and common sense suggestions," he added.

To comment, e-mail milupdate@aol.com, write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111 or visit: militaryupdate.com.


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