Analysis: Disabled veterans question VA benefits
By Al Swanson
UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL
Chicago, IL, Dec. 15 (UPI) — Disabled military veterans and political leaders in Illinois are posing tough questions to the Department of Veterans Affairs on why there’s no uniform way to assess the consistency of decisions on disability claims at its regional offices.
The VA will pay $25 billion in disability compensation to 2.7 million disabled military veterans this fiscal year, according to Stars and Stripes. The maximum disability benefit is about $2,500 a month — around $30,000 a year.
The plight of disabled vets made headlines this month after the Chicago Sun-Times ran a series showing disabled veterans from Illinois have ranked near the bottom in federal disability benefits for 20 years.
It appeared disability ratings and compensation depended on where a veteran lived and filed a claim, leaving veterans to wonder whether they were treated fairly.
The Government Accountability Office told Congress the “VA cannot provide reasonable assurance that similarly situated veterans who submit claims for the same impairment to different regional offices receive reasonably consistent decisions.”
Illinois was 50th of 52 areas — all the U.S. states and Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia — in federal disability pay.
In the Midwest region, Minnesota paid the most to disabled vets, an average $7,872 annually, followed by Missouri at $7,848, Wisconsin at $7,739, Iowa at $7,490 and $6,910 in Indiana.
Disabled Illinois veterans received an average $6,802 — more than $100 a year less than Indiana vets got. Benefits received by disabled veterans in most Midwestern states were below the national average disability pay of $8,065.
Disabled vets in Maine and New Mexico received as much as $4,000 a year more last year, the Sun-Times investigation found. The average benefit paid to wounded vets in Puerto Rico was $11,607 and $10,842 in Maine.
U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said veterans residing in Illinois were on the short end of the benefits stick and called for uniformity in determining disability pay.
Hastert requested a nationwide study of VA disability pay.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., accused the VA of treating injured Illinois veterans as “second-class” soldiers.
“When you agreed to serve this country, there were promises made to you that need to be kept,” Durbin told veterans Tuesday at VFW Post 2791 in Tinley Park in south suburban Chicago.
As Durbin listened to a small group of Vietnam and Korean War veterans talk about their problems with the VA, more than 100 vocal veterans criticized the Chicago VA regional office at a hearing of the City Council’s health committee.
A VA report obtained by the Sun-Times ranked Illinois 46 of 52 states and territories in disability pay in 1984. Twenty years ago injured veterans in Puerto Rico averaged $6,500 in disability pay while Illinois vets averaged $3,002.
“They’ve always had these statistics,” said Allen Lynch, a Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient who heads the Illinois Veterans’ Rights Bureau.
The Illinois congressional delegation and Gov. Rod Blagojevich sent letters to outgoing VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi inviting him to Chicago before Jan. 5, 2005, to meet with veterans who feel they’ve been shortchanged and respond to their claims.
“Our veterans all served under the same red, white and blue standard, and their disability claims should be measured by a single, fair standard as well,” wrote Durbin. “Unfortunately, it appears that the application of the VA’s rules in its 58 regional offices is delivering unequal results for our disabled veterans in their time of need.”
Principi ordered the VA inspector general to conduct an independent review of how disability claims are rated and promised to rectify inequities in disability pay.
“I am very concerned about allegations of disparity in how VA decides the claims of Chicago veterans,” Principi said in a statement Friday. “My department is committed to treating every veteran’s claim fairly and equitably. If that isn’t happening somewhere in our system, it will be corrected.”
President George W. Bush nominated former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson to succeed Principi, and Democratic U.S. Senator-elect Barack Obama has invited Nicholson to meet with veterans in Illinois.
Illinois veterans officials call the VA’s response an encouraging first step.
“They let us know they will be sending a team from the veterans affairs benefits department to conduct a review of the claims,” Laurie Tranter, a veterans affairs spokeswoman, told the Chicago Tribune. “This means the VA is going to take this very seriously, and they are going to review the process to see if there isn’t a better way to review benefit claims.”
Durbin said many Midwest states were shortchanged when it comes to benefits for their disabled veterans. Mental-health experts expect up to 17 percent of Iraq war veterans will suffer post-traumatic stress after their tours.
A study in the July issue of the New England Journal of Medicine found the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder was lower among troops in Afghanistan who had been exposed to fewer insurgent bombings and random attacks than in Iraq.
Stars and Stripes reported nearly 30,300 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had sought healthcare though the VA system through June. Their most common complaints were musculoskeletal problems, nervous system and digestive disorders and dental problems.
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