“There’s no reason in the world that a veteran from Ohio should be shortchanged on benefits simply because he is from Ohio.”
U.S. Rep. Zack Space, an Ohio Democrat
December 19, 2007 – WASHINGTON – Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating mental ailments are discovering that their government disability payments vary widely depending on where they live, a McClatchy analysis has found.
As a result, many of the recent veterans who are getting monthly payments for post-traumatic stress disorder from the Department of Veterans Affairs could lose tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits over their lifetimes.
The Bush administration has sought to reassure soldiers that they will be treated fairly, but veterans in some parts of the country are far more likely to be well compensated than their compatriots elsewhere are, the analysis found.
McClatchy’s analysis is based on 3 million disability compensation claims records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and separate documents the VA provided. The analysis is the first to examine the issue of state-to-state variations in compensation for those young veterans who have left the military since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.
For veterans, their families and their advocates, the issue of disability compensation is hugely important. Disability checks are now worth up to $2,527 a month for a single veteran with no children. Because they last a lifetime, low payments set now — when veterans are young — have a dramatic impact.
So far, more than 43,000 recent veterans are on the disability compensation rolls for a range of mental conditions from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression and anxiety. Of those, more than 31,000 have post-traumatic stress disorder, which has emerged as one of the signature injuries from the war on terrorism.
Given the number of soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is a fraction of what the total will be.
The VA’s assessments of those injuries, however, are all over the map.
Of the recent veterans processed by the VA office in Albuquerque, N.M., 56 percent had high ratings for post-traumatic stress disorder. Of those handled by the office in Fort Harrison, Mont., only 18 percent did, the McClatchy analysis found.
The Missouri office, in St. Louis, ranks sixth from the bottom, with only 22 percent having high ratings. The Kansas office, in Wichita, ranks 21st from the bottom, with 31 percent having high ratings.
“There’s no reason in the world that a veteran from Ohio should be shortchanged on benefits simply because he is from Ohio,” said U.S. Rep. Zack Space, a Democrat from Ohio, where veterans had among the lowest compensation rates. “And there’s no reason a veteran from New Mexico should be getting more benefits simply because he lives in New Mexico.”
A VA benefits official, Michael Walcoff, said the VA was working to minimize unwarranted variations. Judging a condition such as PTSD, however, can be difficult, he said.
So far, 1.5 million Americans have served in the global war on terrorism, and half of them have left active service and transitioned to veteran status, VA documents show.
Those discharged veterans alone already have produced more than 180,000 disability cases, in which veterans are found to have mental or physical ailments linked to their military service. Most already are receiving monthly compensation checks.
Among all the ailments that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans now have, PTSD ranks fourth, behind ringing in the ear, back strain and hearing loss. But because it tends to be far more debilitating than those other conditions — and generates far higher payments — PTSD is the most important disability to emerge from the recent wars.
After years of grumbling by some veterans that they were getting shortchanged, the regional discrepancies became a hot political issue in 2004, after reports by Knight Ridder Newspapers (which McClatchy acquired last year) and others highlighted wide state-to-state swings in the numbers of veterans on compensation rolls and the amounts of their payments.
Under prodding from Congress, the VA said it would work to make its decisions more uniform among the more than 50 regional offices that process disability claims.
This summer, a new report commissioned by the VA again detailed wide variations in disability payments from state to state.
The McClatchy analysis found that a recent veteran with PTSD on the rolls in Albuquerque is likely to have a higher payment than a new veteran with PTSD on the rolls in the Montana office.
The VA workers who decide PTSD cases determine whether a veteran’s ability to function at work is limited a little, a lot or somewhere in between. They examine the frequency of panic attacks and the level of memory loss. The process is subjective, and veterans are placed on a scale that gives them scores — or “ratings” — of zero, 10, 30, 50, 70 or 100.
McClatchy’s analysis found that some regional offices are far more likely to give veterans scores of 50 or 70 while others are far more likely to stick with scores of 10 or 30.
Consider the New Mexico and Montana offices, where there are big differences up and down the scale.
In Montana, more than three-quarters of veterans have ratings of zero, 10 or 30. In New Mexico, a majority have ratings of 50 or 70. On top of that, 6 percent of New Mexico veterans had the highest rating possible — 100, worth $2,527 a month — compared with just 1 percent of Montana veterans.
Because payments are loaded toward the highest end of the scale — the difference between the highest rating and the next highest rating is more than $1,000 a month — the huge gap in ratings has a significant impact on how much the VA is paying, on average, to veterans in different states.
Factoring in all mental and physical disabilities, the average payment for recent veterans ranges from a high of $734 a month in the Little Rock, Ark., office to a low of $435 in Honolulu. The average payment in Wichita is $533, and it is $502 in St. Louis.
VA regional office rankings for PTSD scores
This list contains these elements in this order: regional office, percent of cases with high rating (50 or above) for PTSD, average payment for all disabilities for recent veterans.*
Little Rock, Ark.
Salt Lake City
St. Petersburg, Fla.
White River Junction, Vt.
Sioux Falls, S.D.
Des Moines, Iowa
Fort Harrison, Mont.
*McClatchy identifies “recent veterans” as those who joined the military after the first Persian Gulf War and were discharged sometime after the Afghanistan war started.
SOURCE: McClatchy analysis of VA data. Two offices — in Nebraska and Washington, D.C. — were excluded for insufficient data.