Military Update: Vets panel backs hefty pay gains, reforms
October 7, 2007
The first comprehensive review of veterans’ disability benefits in 51 years recommends that Congress and the Bush administration support an immediate increase in compensation levels — of up to 25 percent for the most severely disabled — to recognize monetarily their reduced quality of life.
The Veterans Disability Benefits Commission’s thick report, reflecting more than two years of work, also wants all disabled veterans made eligible for “concurrent receipt” of both disability pay and an annuity based on years spent in service.
Disabled veterans and their families will find much to be pleased about in the report’s 113 recommendations, assuming lawmakers and the Department of Veterans Affairs follow through on sweeping reforms presented in the report. The commissioners, 12 of whom are veterans, didn’t allow cost considerations to deeply influence their deliberations.
“[W]e came up with a lot of recommendations that are cheap and easy and some that are hard and expensive. But we really believe all of them will add value to the system if they are carefully considered and, hopefully, adopted,” said retired Lt. Gen. Terry Scott, a former infantry officer and Army Ranger, who chaired the panel.
The lone nonveteran, actuary John L. Grady, dissented from some of the most costly recommendations, including blanket concurrent receipt. The full report is available at: www.vetscommission.org/ reports.asp.
In 2004, House Republican leaders, pressured by the Bush administration, opposed expansion of benefits for disabled retirees and surviving widows. When forced to reverse course that election year, the Republican majority insisted on creation of a bipartisan commission to study disability benefits. House leaders believed it could be a tool to get veterans’ entitlement growth under control.
Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., as he assumed chairmanship of the House Veterans Affairs Committee in 2005, said he looked for the commission to consider tightening the definition of service-connected disabilities and whether Congress went too far in lifting the ban on concurrent receipt for all retirees rated 100 percent disabled.
What the commission did instead was call for an unprecedented expansion of benefits and support programs for disabled veterans, whether they were disabled in Iraq or in World War II or simply became ill serving their country sometime between those two long wars.
It might take Congress years to implement the bulk of the commission’s proposals, but it should view some as priorities. Among them:
Ending the ban on concurrent receipt for all disabled retirees and all servicemembers who have been separated due to service-connected disabilities. The first groups to gain such benefits should be severely disabled veterans with fewer than 20 years of service and veterans disabled as a result of combat, the commission said.
End the dollar-for-dollar reduction in military survivor benefit that occurs when surviving spouses also draw VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation should end. This would benefit 61,000 survivors, mostly widows.
VA disability compensation should be boosted immediately by as much as 25 percent as an interim step toward recognizing the effect of service-related disabilities on quality of life.
Disability compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder with treatment and vocational assessment. PTSD veterans should be re-evaluated every two to three years. Scott said this might be one of the few recommendations opposed by veterans’ groups but commissioners felt strongly that PTSD cases need stronger management.
The 60-year-old disability rating schedule should be revised, starting with PTSD, other mental disorders and traumatic brain injury. The schedule lumps the three distinct conditions together for rating purposes, creating inequities, Scott said. VA should modernize the entire schedule within five years.
Veterans with disabilities rated 60 percent to 90 percent can still get compensation at the 100 percent level if deemed unable to work, what the VA calls “IU” status. The number of veterans rated IU has climbed sharply in recent years. Commissioners said the program needs to be better managed.
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