Posted on Feb 15, 2012

From the print edition of Army Times:

"Lag in disability pay overhaul irks vets groups, lawmakers"

By Rick Maze

Washington - The slow pace and complex nature of an extensive review of veterans' disability compensation is fueling growing concern among lawmakers and veterans groups.

Jeffrey Hall, assistant legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, warned Jan. 24 that the Veterans Affairs Department’s ongoing overhaul of its disability rating rules is “heading in a direc*tion that could harm veterans suf*fering with mental health disor*ders and potentially threaten the integrity of the entire veterans disability compensation system.”

Testifying before the House Vet*erans’ Affairs Committee’s disabili*ty assistance panel, Hall said VA is looking at a change in rating men*tal disorders under which benefits levels would be determined by a veteran’s ability to work in a post*military job — not on the tradition*al factors of potential lost wages and reduced quality of life.

“The less someone is able to work, the more he or she would be compensated,” Hall said of the proposal that has been briefed to VA’s advisory committee on dis*ability compensation.

According to a draft proposal, disability ratings based solely on mental disorders would be deter*mined by the frequency and sever*ity of disruption in work.

For example, someone unable to work two or more times a week might be rated 100 percent dis*abled, while someone unable to work one day a week might be rated 70 percent disabled.

The proposal would be a major overhaul of current ratings crite*ria, which take into account social impairment and the ability to carry out daily tasks in addition to income loss. Looking solely at the ability to work full time would exclude factors such as earnings potential — for example, a veteran with a law degree who, because of post-traumatic stress disorder, might take work as a night janitor so he has minimal contact with people.

The proposal is part of an ongoing effort, expected to continue through 2016, to revise and update the VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities, a move ordered by Congress in 2008.

Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., chairman of the disability assistance panel, said VA’s rating system needs an update.

“Just as we would not issue World War II-era equipment and weapons to our current soldiers and Marines and expect them to be successful on the modern bat*tlefield, we should not be satisfied with a World War II-era system for evaluating and rating their dis*abilities as a result of their ser*vice,” he said.

Runyan added that he wished the current review would move a bit faster.

Thomas Murphy, director of VA’s compensation service, said the rat*ings review is taking longer than expected but said, “This … needs to be done right.” A Center for Naval Analyses study, prepared as part of a 2007 report by the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission, found that when looking at the value of dis*ability benefits relative to loss of income, veterans with mental dis*orders tended to be underpaid, while those with physical disor*ders were properly paid.

The report also found that veter*ans who became disabled at a young age generally were under*compensated, while older veterans were overcompensated.

Those findings are being applied to the VA ratings review.

Mental health issues affect many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Frank LoGalbo, national service director for the Wounded Warrior Project.

The nonprofit group’s survey of 5,800 veterans wounded since 2001 found that one-third had mental health issues that “made it difficult to obtain employment or hold jobs,” LoGalbo said.

“Almost two-thirds of those sur*veyed reported that emotional problems had substantially inter*fered with work or regular activi*ties during the previous four weeks,” he said.