Congress digging into Illinois benefits claims

Chicago Sun-Times

Congress digging into Illinois benefits claims

A congressional investigator begins digging through federal veterans’ disability claims today in Chicago to determine why Illinois is ranked at the bottom of the nation in pay to wounded veterans.

But a former disability rater in the Chicago Veterans Affairs office insists that Illinois’ pay is consistent among Midwestern industrial states and criticizes those veterans who he says try to game the system.

“A lot of resources get wasted on less than meritorious claims,” said Michael Burke, 56, a former VA disability benefits rater in Chicago who retired last fall after 32 years at the VA. “You always have to look out for the people who are trying to commit fraud. No taxpayer wants his money going to the goldbricks — the guy who makes his situation out to be worse that it is.”


Chicago aldermen will begin public hearings at 9 a.m. on Tuesday in City Council chambers for comments on Illinois’ ranking at the bottom of the nation in disability pay.

Incentive for smaller states?

Mary Ellen McCarthy, the Democratic staff director for the House’s subcommittee on veterans’ benefits, said she has seen few cases of fraud in the past eight years that she has been reviewing veterans records for the House.

McCarthy will spend two days examining Chicago’s records — mostly focusing on those involving muscular skeletal and psychiatric claims, which tend to be the most contentious — before issuing a report to Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

“This was not already scheduled,” said McCarthy, an attorney who practiced benefits law for 20 years before joining the House committee, “but is happening given the significance and concern that has surfaced.”

Citing a Sun-Times investigation which showed Illinois veterans receive thousands of dollars less than veterans in other states, Evans is circulating a letter among the Illinois delegation that demands answers from VA Secretary Anthony Principi, who is resigning.

Veterans in Maine, for example, consistently receive on average $4,000 more a year than Illinoisans.

“In Maine,” said McCarthy, “they train their folks to start at the top — the highest a vet can be awarded and work down. If Chicago started at the bottom and worked up it would be consistent. That’s one way that you get a discrepancy in average ratings.”

Former rater Burke says that smaller states like Maine award higher pay to veterans because disabled veterans have a harder time finding employment in rural states than states like Illinois that have large industrial cities.

McCarthy said she has found no evidence to back up Burke’s contention: “You can’t really tell if that’s because people are in industrial states and have a Midwestern mentality and get it together and get a job or because they come in an are told ‘no, we’re not going to grant it,’ and they never come back.”

‘There’s no conspiracy’

Burke contends he and his colleagues have never tried to cheat any veteran.

“There’s no conspiracy to deny anybody benefits,” said Burke, who was in the Navy from 1971to 1974. Like him, most of the 31 raters in the Chicago office who make $52,195 to $81,323 have a military background, he said. In recent years, the office has hired a few nurses.

Burke said he and his colleagues were surprised when they learned about four years ago that they were awarding among the lowest benefits in the nation.

“We were like: ‘Whoa, there are some people really shoveling out the benefits,” Burke said of Puerto Rico, which has awarded the highest amount for the past five years — nearly $5,000 more than Illinois veterans. “We thought some of the states were playing fast and loose.”

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