January 7, 2009, Wilmington, NC – Wounded troops are still waiting to file new appeals of disability ratings that determine what kind of medical care and benefits they get after federal officials missed their goal for beginning the process.
The Department of Defense was already months behind on starting the work of a three-member board that will hear the appeals. The December 2007 act of Congress that created the board mandated it start hearing appeals within 90 days. Though defense officials missed that deadline, they said they planned to start by the end of 2008. That didn’t happen either.
“Thousands of wounded troops have gotten inexplicably low disability ratings. An incorrect rating can cost a disabled veteran hundreds of dollars a month,” said Vanessa Williamson, the policy director at New York-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Especially in this economy, this is an enormous burden.”
A disability rating is based on the severity and long-term impact of a veteran’s injury.
A rating above 30 percent means a service member gets a monthly retirement check and his or her family is eligible for care at military hospitals.
Those rated below 30 percent get severance payments that are taxed. While they continue to get health care, it is provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs instead of the military. Their families, once covered by military health insurance, no longer receive government-provided health care.
Capt. Mike Andrews, a spokesman for the Air Force, which is overseeing the panel’s creation, said the board is waiting for the Office of the Secretary of Defense to finish vetting the application troops will file.
Spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ office has approved the application, but it’s been sent to the federal Office of Management and Budget for further revisions. Smith said the application should be posted on the board’s Web site in a few days.
Veterans advocates are weary of such promises. They note it wasn’t until June — months after the panel was to begin operating — that the Defense Department formally announced its creation.
“Making sure that our veterans get the benefits they have earned should be a top Defense Department priority,” Williamson said. “Instead, veterans are getting more delays and more excuses.”
Spokeswoman Loren Dealy said the House Armed Services Committee is keeping tabs on the board’s progress.
Congress created the board after several investigations found inconsistencies in how the military assigns the disability ratings. Before Congress ordered the streamlined review process, veterans could only seek a lengthy review from a military panel that rarely changed them.
Some veterans advocates believe the Defense Department should use the delay to further revamp the process by giving the new panel the power to assess a veteran’s health from scratch instead of just reviewing the disability rating.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Mike Parker, an advocate for wounded soldiers, said the military often doesn’t rate a veteran’s most disabling condition.
For example, Parker said a soldier had a degenerative eye disease that would have given him over 30 percent disability, but the Army only rated his shin splints, which got a 10 percent rating.
“Before Department of Defense got its hands on it, this board had tons of potential to correct numerous disability evaluation errors,” Parker said. “The way the Defense Department implemented this board, it will only help a fraction of the wounded warriors the law intended. That was probably Department of Defense’s intent all along.”