Vetting Veterans

Advocacy groups fear that disability changes could skew compensation for service-related injuries.

Sweeping veterans disability reforms proposed by President Bush would create a dual compensation system that would be an administrative nightmare for the Veterans Affairs Department and could shortchange certain wounded service members, critics say.

"We need to focus on meeting the needs of veterans, and the VA will adapt to accomplish the task," an agency spokesman said in a statement.

But veterans groups, including the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Veterans of Foreign Wars, oppose the legislation. It would require VA to operate two disability systems-one for veterans of current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and another for older vets-for as long as 70 years, they say. Those who joined the military after October 2001 would be under the new system.

The groups say the system could compensate Iraq and Afghanistan veterans better because they would receive "quality of life" payments on top of the current formula. Gerard Manar, deputy director of the VFW's national veterans service, says if the dual plan is enshrined in legislation, "you are going to end up with a lot of disgruntled veterans. Vietnam veterans are going to wonder if they are chopped liver."

The President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors and the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission issued recommendations to the president. But veterans groups are concerned that the administration based its legislation primarily on the work of the Wounded Warriors panel, formed in March and disbanded at the end of July, rather than the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission, in existence since May 2005. That panel conducted hearings across the country and commissioned two studies-one by the Center for Naval Analyses on the benefits determination process and another by the Institute of Medicine examining compensation for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The legislation would streamline a process that is "difficult to navigate and confusing for both service members and their families" with a new system, which among other things would provide "those unable to serve . . . a pension from the Defense Department based on their rank and length of service," President Bush said on Oct. 16.

But, Manar says, "VA has enough trouble administering the current program, and the creation of two separate and distinct systems could be the death knell of the VA."

The Veterans Affairs Department is swamped with a backlog of 400,000 benefit claims, according to the Senate report on the fiscal 2008 VA-Military Construction spending bill. Manar says two tiers would require the VA to hire thousands of new employees, each of whom would need two to three years of on-the-job training.

Another problem, veterans groups say, is that the plan distinguishes between "combat-related" and training injuries. Manar says the new system could shortchange those who are disabled as the result of an accident on a stateside military base.

But retired Army Lt. Gen. Terry Scott, chairman of the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission, told the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on Oct. 17 that "all disabilities and injuries should be compensated based on the severity of disability and not be limited to combat or combat-related injuries."

The two commissions recommended that the VA update its disability rating schedule, last revised 62 years ago, to address mental and neurological disorders such as PTSD and traumatic brain injury. But Todd Bowers, director of government affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says he does not see a need to totally revamp the system, since "it is already shaken up with thousands of new veterans" returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he says, tweaking the current system could produce better results than starting from scratch.

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