Military Update: Uncertainty swirls around VA disability reform
By Tom Philpott, Jon Hovde lost his left arm, left leg and two fingers of his right hand when his armored personnel carrier struck an antitank mine. The 20-year-old Army private was almost left for dead when a medic, checking for a pulse in the mayhem, found none in Hovde’s severed arm.
This occurred almost 30 years ago in South Vietnam. Hovde spent seven-and-a-half months’ recuperating in an Army hospital before being medically retired. His initial VA disability check was $340 a month. His first prosthetic leg, he recalled, was wooden and weighed “about 30 pounds.” He never saw a psychiatrist; post-traumatic stress wasn’t a routine concern.
Today Hovde, 59, draws $3,800 a month in VA compensation. His prosthetics use embedded computer chips. When back and foot problems linked to his war wounds cut short a promising business career, he adapted again. The Minnesotan now gives motivational speeches nationwide.
But perhaps like many of the nation’s 2.8 million veterans drawing VA disability compensation, Hovde sometimes gets upset at the wave of benefit improvements being targeted at Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Will they touch older veterans or leave them behind?
“It’s like a company saying, ‘You people who retired in the last five years, you get an increase. But those who have been retired longer than that, you get nothing,’” Hovde said. “How fair is that?”
While recovering from his injuries, Hovde said, he was told he would get a $20,000 payment for his lost limbs. He never did. Yet the severely wounded of Iraq and Afghanistan are getting traumatic injury awards. They deserve it but so did he, Hovde said.
Details on the many changes being pushed are easier to pin down than answers to two other questions: who will be impacted and when will the changes take effect. Next month the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission (VDBC) will deliver more than 100 recommendations to the president and Congress. All were voted on in public meetings and most are favorable to veterans.
Congress is expected to hold multiple hearings on the VDBC recommendations starting next year. But this month, President Bush plans to implement disability compensation reforms from the Dole-Shalala Commission. The White House hopes to get this package to Capitol Hill in time for inclusion in the 2008 defense authorization bill.
The administration had intended that its disability reforms for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans apply only to those injured in combat or in combat-related training. That is being reconsidered in light of sharp opposition from veterans groups and, congressional staffers say, key lawmakers. The VDBC also unanimously endorsed Dole-Shalala with two exceptions. One is the report’s focus only on fixing the system only for combat-related disabilities.
Dole-Shalala seeks to end dual disability systems run by the departments of defense and veterans affairs.
Dole-Shalala says veterans separated as unfit because of service-related disabilities should get an immediate military annuity equal to 2.5 percent of basic pay times years served. The report says only veterans retired early due to combat-related injuries should receive lifetime TRICARE coverage from the military health system.
On top of that, their VA compensation for service disabilities would come in two parts with features intended not merely to compensate for lost earnings — the sole goal of current VA disability pay — but to encourage veterans to restore their working lives to the fullest extent possible.
A “quality of life” disability payment would be based severity of disability and paid monthly for life.
A “transition” payment initially would be set high enough to support the veteran and immediate family for up to four years while the veteran receives vocational training, rehabilitation or attends school.
Veteran groups strongly oppose two features of the Dole-Shalala proposal. One is a requirement that VA review a veteran’s disability and earnings history every three years and another would end transition payments for earning loss when veterans turn 65 and presumably receive social security.
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