New VA Secretary Blames VA Workers for Disparities in Disability Payments

Chicago Sun-Times

New VA Secretary Blames VA Workers for Disparities in Disability Payments

Illinois’ wounded veterans are receiving among the lowest disability pay in the nation possibly because federal Veterans Affairs disability raters in Chicago are too harsh and inadequately trained, top VA officials said Friday.

“The difficulty comes in when the claims are subjective or vague — lower back pain or a mental disability,” VA Secretary Jim Nicholson told a crowd of veterans and VA officials at the Yorkville American Legion in Kendall County.

“There’s a human factor of a guy sitting on this side of the desk rating and there’s a veteran over there. That’s a subjective call. That’s where the difficulty is.”

In his first official visit to Illinois since assuming the top post nearly five weeks ago, Nicholson said subjectivity in disability decisions is just one factor in the VA inspector general’s investigation into the national disability system.

That investigation began in December after a Chicago Sun-Times series revealed Illinois veterans have received among the lowest disability pay in the country for the last 70 years. Most recently, that disparity has left Illinois’ wounded veterans with $5,000 less on average than disabled veterans from other states and Puerto Rico.

Nicholson said he was “quite surprised” and “troubled” when he learned of the disparity from the newspaper and is determined to find answers. He refused to say what the inspector general’s investigation has discovered so far, and said the probe won’t be done for “a few more months.”

Handpicked veterans attend

Another issue federal investigators are focusing on is whether disability raters have standardized training in making decisions in at least five kinds of cases that require individual judgment, such as when a veteran has post-traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia.

Another puzzling finding investigators are questioning is why Illinois’ percentage of veterans receiving disability compensation is the lowest in the country; only 6 percent of Illinois veterans receive disability pay.

“That has to be a factor in this whole thing,” Vice Admiral Daniel Cooper, the VA undersecretary for benefits, told veterans.

Appearing in Yorkville and at the Elgin VFW, Nicholson and his staff spoke with about 60 veterans Friday as he traveled with U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert in Hastert’s district. VA officials and workers nearly outnumbered the veterans, who were handpicked by their organizations to meet with Hastert and Nicholson. A few uninvited veterans showed up at the Yorkville American Legion and were allowed to sit in the back as long as they didn’t ask any questions, they said.

Nicholson, who called himself the nation’s “chief veterans advocate,” tried to relate to his rural audience by saying he grew up in a small town in Iowa, where his first exposure to the VA was when a buddy came back from Korea with an amputated leg and sought care.

Why so long, vets ask

Veterans questioned Nicholson about a variety of issues, including the federal budget, privacy surrounding a claim of post-traumatic stress disorder, health care for National Guard and Reserve veterans and treatment of homeless veterans. But the question that came up most frequently was why it takes so long for a veteran to get a decision on his or her disability claim and even longer on an appeal.

Nicholson said there are 330,000 backlogged claims — an improvement from 432,000 claims just 2-1/2 years ago — and he hoped to hire more raters and step up training to improve the claims turnaround.

Nicholson’s visit to rural Illinois angered U.S. Senators Barack Obama and Dick Durbin, who had both invited him to Chicago before he took office. Both senators are tiring of an investigation that is entering its third month.

“We are disappointed that these brave veterans are still waiting for the answers they deserve and that Secretary Nicholson will not have an opportunity to speak with more of the veterans who are hurting all across Illinois,” the senators said in a statement.

Obama later told the Sun-Times he didn’t think the inspector general’s investigation should take long to produce, and that he and Durbin had been cut out of Nicholson’s meeting.

Hastert defended Nicholson’s visit, which bypassed Chicago, where the majority of the state’s nearly 1 million veterans live.

“Those senators have to worry about the whole state,” Hastert said. “I can only bring him into my district. That’s where I can go.”

Nicholson said he would come to Chicago before the report is complete, but he couldn’t answer questions about the disability disparity until the inquiry was concluded.

Contributing: Dave McKinney

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