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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Veterans Disability Benefits Commission Releases Report, Recommends Sweeping System Overhaul

From the Associated Press:

Veterans disability payments should be increased immediately by up to 25 percent as part of a sweeping overhaul designed to compensate for a wounded warrior's lost "quality of life," a special commission recommended Wednesday.

The 2 1/2-year study [full report :: executive summary] the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission offers the most comprehensive look yet at the ailing government benefits system that provides millions of injured veterans with about $30 billion a year in payments.

Tracking the findings of recent reports that detailed flaws in veterans care, the 13-member congressional commission concluded in its 544-page report that both the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department fall woefully short in providing adequate mental health care as well as timely and fair disability payments.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Military Times reflects on the report:

Most of the recommendations, including the proposed 25 percent benefits boost, would require congressional action before they could take effect.

With the Bush administration already balking at the $4 billion increase in veterans’ health care and benefits programs being pushed by Congress, it is unlikely that administration officials would support further increases.

However, an overhaul of the veterans’ disability rating system, streamlined claims processing and an easier transition from military to veterans programs are all issues under consideration by Congress, and could end up included in the Wounded Warrior Assistance Act that lawmakers expect to pass later this year. An overhaul of the military’s complicated disability retirement and physical evaluation process is expected to be part of that bill. ...

The VA ratings schedule that sets disability levels has not been changed in 62 years, and needs to be updated, the commission says, with top priority going to revising the ratings for PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other mental health and neurological body systems. This could be done quickly, in time to help Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, while leaving a review of the rest of the ratings to roll out over five years.

Continuing with AP:

[R]etired Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, the commission's chairman, said the disability system needed to be revamped, expressing his belief that the Army might be seeking to lowball veterans' disability ratings to avoid paying more benefits. ...

"We have come up with 113 recommendations — some of them are cheap. Some are easy. Some are extremely hard and complex. Some of them, there is a significant bill attached to it," Scott said. "But what we're hoping is that the Congress carefully looks at all 113."

Among the findings:

_Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder are in danger of slipping through the cracks because there is little coordination among agencies to ensure they get the full range of services from needed medical treatment to proper compensation and vocational rehabilitation so they can return to work.

_After initial screenings, the VA often does not follow up soon enough with re-examinations of veterans with suspected PTSD. The report blamed in part the VA's struggles to reduce its backlog of disability claims, which it said was diverting the agency's attention and resources away from needed PTSD care. The commission called for mandatory re-examinations for PTSD to gauge treatment and other issues every two to three years.

_Benefits should be awarded to veterans for any service-related injury, regardless of whether it was incurred during combat.

_The VA must make better use of technology as a way to reduce its overwhelming delay of 177 days, on average, in handing out disability payments.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said his panel will closely review the recommendations in the coming weeks.

"Many of these changes may prove costly," he said. "However, as I have stated time and time again, caring for veterans must be viewed as a continuing cost of war."

The commission report comes after the Government Accountability Office last week found that the Bush administration has yet to find clear answers to some of the worst problems afflicting wounded warriors, such as personalized medical care and reducing backlogs in disability pay.

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