Panel: Boost Vet
Benefits by 25 Percent
By HOPE YEN
Oct 3, 3:59 PM EDT
WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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 released by the Veterans' Disability
Benefits Commission offers the most comprehensive look yet at the ailing government benefits system that provides millions
of injured veterans with a total of 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
But going a step further, the commission also recommended
immediate extra payments to injured veterans, many of whom feel they lose out on benefits because of an overly narrow government
focus on earnings losses or other reasons.
That could offer veterans some stopgap relief as
the Bush administration and Congress consider proposals from an array of task forces and commissions aimed at fixing an outdated
system that critics have long said was broken. Such changes could take into account new medical therapies, prosthetics and
other effects of war injuries on the daily functioning of wounded warriors.
"Congress should increase the compensation rates
up to 25 percent as an interim and baseline future benefit for loss of quality of life, pending development and implementation
of quality of life measures," the report states. "In particular, the measure should take into account the quality of life
and other non-work related effects of severe disabilities on veterans and family members."
In an interview with The Associated Press, retired
Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, the commission's chairman, said the disability system needs to be revamped, saying the Army might
be trying to lowball veterans' disability ratings to avoid paying more benefits.
A key commission recommendation seeks to bring more
fairness to the government system by shifting more responsibility for assigning benefits from the Pentagon to the VA, which
tends to rate disabilities higher, even if it ran the risk of putting more strains on an already backlogged VA.
Scott cited a Pentagon policy established in the
mid-1980s at a time of budget restraint that calls for consideration of only one disability when determining benefits, not
multiple ones as the VA does. That policy remains in place today, creating a climate in which Army officials might consider
- at least subconsciously - cost-saving factors when awarding benefits, he said.
"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 all the services
they need, from 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
-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 to reduce
its overwhelming delay of 177 days, on average, in distributing disability payments.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate
Veterans Affairs Committee, said his panel will closely review the recommendations in 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.
Former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, who stepped down
this week, has said his successor will have to be creative in solving intractable delays in payments and improving coordination
in care between the Pentagon and VA. Gordon Mansfield, the VA's deputy secretary, is serving as acting secretary pending a
nomination of a successor by President Bush.
"VA appreciates the efforts of the recent commissions
created to find ways to improve the disability benefits process for eligible veterans," VA spokesman Matt Smith said in response
to the report. "Our goal is to help our disabled veterans become whole and continue their lives by providing them with health
care, rehabilitation, as well as disability, education, and home loan benefits."
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