With some estimates approaching $1 trillion to care for veterans of the current wars, and changes within the labor market, Congress has turned its sights to changing the disability compensation system. Starting this January, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs will renew the conversation on how to improve the current disability system.
While the focus on disability benefits is timely, one lingering question remains, “For whom are the changes intended to benefit?” During a time of budget crunching, it appears to some that Congress is trying to keep veterans from cashing a blank check the Bush Administration wrote when it started its wars in the Middle East.
Current estimates estimate the cost of the war on the taxpayers to be approaching $1 trillion to care for the veterans impacted. This dwarfs the Bush Administration estimates of $60 billion for the war in total expenditures. These wars were supposed to be quick and cheap but have become the longest and most expensive in history.
Two areas of primary focus by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs are: 1) decreasing processing time; and 2) changing the rating system to reflect modern impact of disability on work. Their stated goal is to increase efficiency in the rating system and decrease the rising backlogs.
Rory Riley, attorney and House Committee staffer, stated the Committee is investigating recommendations from the 2007 Shalala Report, the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) report by the Army, and others for guidance.
In its specifics, the Shalala Report (co-chaired by Bob Dole and Donna Shalala) calls for the restructuring of the disability compensation system. The basis stated for change is that the labor market is no longer affecting disabled veterans as much. Therefore, the amount of disability paid out by the Veterans Administration (VA) should be adjusted to reflect the actual impacts.
The IDES report evaluates the model for disability rating used by the Army on active duty personnel after a serious injury or condition impacts the service member permanently. The report points out that the current Army process is still flawed with extended delays costing the Department of Defense over $800 million.
In addition to the reports, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs is calling on veterans within the ever-growing veterans’ advocacy community to provide comment to Congress for insight into problems faced by veterans in trying to receive their benefits in a timely manner.
Within these reports and others is the basis for changing the current model with the claimed goal of increasing access to veterans’ benefits by reducing system delays and inefficiencies.
Regardless of the reports the Committee looks to, it must acknowledge the problem of accuracy. According to the National Organization of Veterans Advocates, if veterans’ claims did not contain errors 80 percent of the time, the issue of backlog could evaporate. Since the VA has an impossible time with the current system, changing the system midstream with the current backlog seems like a horrible idea.
While no one doubts the need for changes to the current disability model given different ways disabilities impact veterans in the work force, the focus needs to be put squarely on accuracy of initial decisions. Through increasing accuracy, the VA will decrease appeals and increase the perception of fairness currently lacking within the model the VA purports to veterans.
Meanwhile, the VA is looking to decrease inefficiencies caused by changing their current requirement to provide veterans with Due Process. For example, Thomas Murphy, current head of Compensation and Pension for VA, recently pointed to turning the disability process paperless as a solution.
Under the current system, the VA is required to “deliver notice to claimants of the information and evidence necessary to substantiate their claims.” The VA has stated that this requirement is too difficult and removing physical “notice” requirements would allow the claims process to be faster. Under this plan, the VA would only be required to possibly email veterans notice of procedures.
In a day and age when the VA has been caught shredding veterans documents and evidence, moving to a paperless model for Due Process seems rife for further fraud. The VA would be able to claim it provided veterans with notice without evidence, since there would be no existing paper trail. Additionally, correspondence can merely be deleted, no shredder needed. Veterans without computer skills would easily slip through the cracks since they will not be able to access email effectively. All the while the VA will be able to deny claims since they did “deliver notice.”
Is this a good deal for veterans? In this scenario, it looks like the changes are intended to benefit the VA and the government’s budget. On its face, these changes look like nothing more than letting the fox guard the hen house. And that fox is very hungry.
Again, the problem is not speed when the disability awards are inaccurate the first time around. The VA’s quest for speed has caused enormous problems with accuracy. This has resulted in countless veterans being wrongfully denied the benefits they earned in service to this country. Unfortunately, Congress and the VA may potentially fail to address the key issue of accuracy by illogically focusing on speed. This assumes the motive for the changes is solely to help veterans get their benefits.
Here’s my concern. Maybe the increase in errors is caused by the VA’s insatiable need for speed is the goal. Maybe, given the large forecasted costs to care for the veterans of the current war, bureaucrats realized the Bush Administration wrote a check the US government cannot afford to cash. Or rather, a check they do not want veterans to cash. Just maybe.
So, it looks like the New Year will not only gave veterans and returning military personnel a bleak economic outlook but possible changes to the current disability compensation system.
Let’s not let this opportunity pass by without speaking out to Congress. If you have a story to tell Congress about the VA, please email us at: screwed(at)disabledveterans.org.