Panel Urges VA to Refigure Pay for Disabled Vets

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

The Department of Veterans Affairs should overhaul its outdated system of compensating former military personnel for disabling injuries they suffered during their service, the Institute of Medicine recommended yesterday.

The current system dates, in part, to the World War II era. It is out of step with modern medical advances in diagnosing, understanding and treating conditions such as traumatic brain injury, the institute said in a report requested by the federal Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission.

The institute is a branch of the National Academies, an organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific and technical issues. The disability benefits commission, created by Congress in 2003 to study the VA compensation system, is expected to issue a report this year.

For years, the VA rating system has been criticized for bureaucratic delays and disability ratings that many veterans say are lower than they should be, which means they get less compensation. The subject is getting renewed attention as veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan return home with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain damage, amputations and other serious injuries and conditions.

"With troops being injured nearly every day, the VA's system for evaluating and rating former service members' disabilities should be as up to date as possible," Lonnie R. Bristow, chairman of the committee that produced the report, said in a statement. "Right now, the rating schedule is out of sync with modern medicine and modern concepts of disability."

VA officials said in a statement that they are reviewing the study, and that they are considering creating a joint process for disability determinations with the Defense Department.

Veterans are eligible for monthly payments of $115 to $2,471 depending on the severity of the disability. Last year, about 2.7 million veterans received $26.5 billion in compensation, an average of more than $9,800 per veteran.

The panel also recommended that the VA account for the impact that a disabling injury has on a veteran's quality of life and ability to engage in usual life activities, not merely on his ability to work and earn money. It said the VA and the Defense Department should conduct comprehensive medical and vocational evaluations of newly separated military personnel, since such exams are often needed to obtain health care and other benefits. And the agency should ensure that VA rating boards have access to medical experts who can help interpret evidence, the institute said.

Joe Violante, national legislative director for the nonprofit advocacy group Disabled American Veterans, said the report overreached. "A total revamp of the system is uncalled for because VA has continually looked at that rating schedule and made revisions over the years," he said. "It's not like this rating schedule was done in a vacuum in 1945 and has never been touched."

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