October 10, 2007— A nearly three-year effort by the Congressionally directed Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission led the 13 commissioners to recommend an immediate increase of up to 25 percent in compensation to offset a loss of quality of life for severely disabled veterans. Also among the commission's top priorities is an overhaul of the 62-year-old Veterans Affairs rating schedule and elimination of dual—and competing—VA and DOD disability evaluation systems.
The commission, which released its final report last week, has made 113 recommendations and identified 14 as most urgent. Included in those are issues of specific concern to Congress, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, concurrent receipt of military retired pay and disability compensation and an ongoing disability claims backlog.
PTSD, which one lawmaker recently described as running "rampant," took center stage in the commission's recommendation to update the VA rating schedule. The commission says VA should rework the ratings related to PTSD, other mental disorders, and traumatic brain injury first, and then proceed through the other areas, "comprehensively" revising the entire rating schedule within five years. After that, the commission says VA needs to produce a "published schedule" for routine updates.
The commission also urges Congress to "eliminate the ban on concurrent receipt for all military retirees and for all service members who separated from the military due to service-connected disabilities." Commissioners argue that the two programs—military retiree pay and disability pay—have "unique intents and purposes," making it "permissible to receive both sets of benefits concurrently." And, the commission believes Congress should aid survivors of military retirees and of members who die in service by eliminating the Survivor Benefit Plan/Dependency and Indemnity Compensation offset.
Increasing compensation to offset for loss of quality of life was one of the decisions commissioners said they made early. Current law only compensates for "average impairment of earning capacity." Commissioners believe the nation must also compensate disabled veterans "for their inability to participate in usual life activities and for the impact of their disabilities on quality of life." The Institute of Medicine, which the commission consulted during its deliberations, agreed and released a separate report in June suggesting ways to implement an appropriate QOL evaluation. Commissioners acknowledged that some veterans already receive QOL compensation in a "limited fashion" for loss of limbs or loss of their use, however they believe a broader application is in order. While VA works out a "systematic methodology, the commission wants Congress to up overall disability compensation by up to 25 percent.
Commissioners also emphasized the need to spur VA to fix its cumbersome claims and appeals process. They did acknowledge that "court decisions, statutory changes, and resource limitations" had all contributed to the current "unacceptable situation." They credited VA for increasing its claims staff, however, they say that more must be done because training and experience take time. They recommend an immediate introduction of a "simplified and expedited process for well-documented claims" and "maximum use" of information technology advances.
Praising the work of the commission, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, stated that this report and other reviews have made it "clear that there is a critical need for a restructured and modernized disability system that is easier to understand … and ensures better coordination of care and benefits" in the transition from DOD to VA.
Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, acknowledged that many of the recommendations "may prove costly;" however, he added that "caring for veterans must be viewed as a continuing cost of war."
Akaka plans a hearing on Oct. 17 to discuss the commission's findings and those of the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors. The Bob Dole-Donna Shalala commission released its report this summer.
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