VA not ready to back disabled pay

By Tom Philpott: Military update

Monthly compensation the Department of Veterans Affairs pays to veterans with service-connected disabilities is intended to replace average earnings loss due to injuries or ailments.

But should VA also pay disabled veterans something extra for diminished quality of life?

Two prominent commissions in 2007 said it should. Last week, however, a senior VA official told senators the department isn’t prepared yet to endorse a qualify-of-life payment, or to make any other significant change to disability compensation.

“There’s more information that’s needed, and … more discussion that needs to take place with many experts, before we are prepared to say yes or no on any of those recommendations,” said Patrick W. Dunne, under secretary for benefits in VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration.

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, ranking Republican on the veterans’ affairs committee, raised the issue in a hearing on a different topic: What VA is doing to speed the processing of a rising number of disability claims.

Burr noted that VA just last year commissioned a study, by Economic Systems Inc., of Falls Church, Va., on appropriate levels of disability pay to compensate for loss of earning capacity and quality of life as a result of service-related disabilities.

This six-month study was to follow up on recommendations from both the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission and the Dole-Shalala Commission in 2007 to reform disability compensation.

The benefits commission, in its comprehensive report, concluded that VA disability pay was too low for three categories of veterans: those who suffer from mental disabilities; those severely injured while young, and those deemed unemployable (i.e., rated IU or Individual Unemployability) by VA.

The commission also said current disability pay should reflect the “adverse impact … on quality of life” of veterans’ disabilities.

Commissioners recognized that some severely injured veterans are paid a Special Monthly Compensation too on top of VA disability pay. But they said the VA rating schedule still should be revised to compensate many more veterans for diminished quality of life.

In the interim, the commission said, Congress should increase VA disability compensation immediately by 25 percent.

The Dole-Shalala panel focused its recommendations on wounded warriors and veterans who were in service after the attacks of 9/11.

It recommended restructuring their VA disability compensation into three parts: transition payments to cover short-term living expenses for disabled vets and their families; earning loss payments until veterans become eligible for social security, and a quality-of-life payment to compensate for non-work-related effects of permanent “combat-related” injuries.