Veterans' Disability Commission Releases Report

Article excerpt

After two and a half years, the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission released its more than 500-page report containing 113 recommendations. Most of those suggestions had been made earlier-either in the Wounded Warrior Assistance Act, which most experts think will be passed later this year; by the Independent Review Group, established by the DoD; or in the Dole-Shalala Commission report presented in July.

The 13-member commission recommended that the Veterans Administration (VA) be given sole responsibility for rating disabilities; the Army would continue to determine fitness for service. Also among the commission's recommendations were requiring the armed services to follow the VA rating schedule, increasing disability pay up to 25 percent until a complete overhaul of the system is finished and having the services reassess ratings decisions at least to the year 2000 for veterans who were denied disability retirement and separated with fewer than 30 years of service.

President Bush has sent a plan to Congress that would reform the disability compensation system for future disabled veterans, an alternative to current benefits for veterans retired or separated from service since October 7, 2001.

That plan, too, would allow the services to retain ratings for fitness of service and provide pensions for those considered unfit, but it would also give the VA the responsibility to care for and compensate soldiers determined to be permanently disabled.

The Dole-Shalala report recommended that VA payments for lost earnings stop when veterans begin to draw social security; the President's proposal did not include that recommendation. Some veterans' groups oppose the plan as a replacement for the wounded warriors compensation already in conference. Some oppose it because it proposes that the VA would restructure its disability and payment rates and regulations after a seven-month study, and because the VA secretary would declare those regulations.

In an editorial in the Washington Post, Dole and Shalala pointed out that the mandate of the presidential commission they chaired was to deal with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and insisted that those who want to reform the entire system for all former servicemembers must not be allowed to get in the way of reform to benefit new veterans.

The DoD is set to launch its own new disability system, an interim plan the Pentagon says is its best effort to improve the system quickly without having to seek congressional approval. One provision is that veterans medically retired could apply for and get VA benefits immediately. According to Bill Carr, undersecretary of defense for Military Personnel Policy, the improved system will cut the time in half between when a servicemember is found unfit for duty and when he or she begins receiving VA disability payments. …