Veterans Groups Urge Changes for How Injured Soldiers Get Disability Benefits

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An injured soldier's disability should be determined by Veterans Affairs officials — and not the Pentagon — because the Army might be shortchanging troops, a presidential commission was told on Monday.

At a public meeting, the nine-member commission on veterans care chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala delved into ways to cut down on paperwork and problems in the disability ratings system.

Under the current system, each of the armed services assign ratings to service members when they become injured. The ratings determine whether the service member is discharged from active service and if so, the amount of disability benefits to which he or she is entitled. The VA operates a separate system to determine benefits for retired veterans.

Critics say the Army rates its injured soldiers at a lower level of disability compared with the other armed services and the VA so it can save on the costs of disability payments.

Veterans groups urged the commission to make a change so injured soldiers aren't underpaid disability benefits.

Such a proposal would be a major shift in how disability benefits are administered, with both critics and supporters acknowledging it would likely add significantly to costs since the VA takes into account all the disabilities a soldier has — not just one.

"We want to add our voice to others deeply disturbed by concerns of lowballing in Army disability ratings," said Robert Norton, deputy director for the Military Officers Association of America. "The ratings gaps are unacceptable."

In recent weeks, a separate review group found consistently lower disability ratings by the Army and suggested it might be because officials didn't want to pay benefits. The Army says it is perplexed by the finding but would investigate.

Bradley Mayes, director of compensation and pension service at the VA, told the commission that shifting the ratings work to the VA could be done. But he cautioned that the Pentagon would still need to be involved in making judgments on whether an active service member was fit for duty, as well as his level of military and severance pay for service. As a result, changing the current system could add to the level of bureaucracy.

"The question is expenses," Mayes added.

Dole and Shalala expressed openness to the proposal, which was made by a 2003 presidential task force co-chaired by Gail Wilensky, now a member of the Dole-Shalala commission. But they also cautioned against a rush to judgment.

At least nine congressional committees are currently investigating ways to improve care following disclosures of shoddy treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and well-meaning lawmakers could unintentionally add to the problem, they said.

"Although red tape in this country have a bad name, we often have legislation upon legislation as people try to fix problems," Shalala said. "This has led to complex systems that have grown up over the years that often aren't user-friendly."

"Simplify, simplify, simplify — keep those words in mind," she added. "While detail is important, our purpose is clearly to foster a seamless system."

Dole wondered if shifting the disability system to the VA might actually create additional bureaucratic hassles. He noted that Pentagon officials have already begun to examine ways to overhaul its disability system.

"If it's that easy to fix, I don't know why it hasn't been fixed," he said.

President Bush created the commission last month to make recommendations following disclosures of shoddy outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The panel plans about a dozen hearings and site visits to military and VA facilities around the country and will issue a report by late July. Its next hearing, in San Antonio on May 3-4, will focus on traumatic brain injury and rehabilitative care.