Editorial – Government Must Stop Shortchanging Disabled Veterans

The Billings Gazette

January 14, 2008 – Geography shouldn’t affect disability compensation to U.S. veterans. But it does.

Such disparities have been a longstanding concern of the Disabled American Veterans, DAV spokesman Dave Autry said from Washington, D.C. Geographic inconsistencies in rating veterans’ disabilities predates the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he said.

However, these disparities are affecting many more veterans as thousands of service members return home and leave the military.

Adam Olivas is one of them. Wounded in July 2003 when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his tank in Iraq, the U.S. Army sergeant and Billings native, returned home to Laurel and a hero’s welcome in December of that year.

It is appalling that four years later, he must struggle against the Veterans Administration bureacracy. Olivas sustained injuries in combat that left him with shrapnel in his body, ringing in his ears and back problems as well as a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Laurel veteran’s story

Olivas’ story was mentioned recently in a national report from McClatchy Newspapers (Jan. 2 Gazette). Another McClatchy report (Dec. 21 Gazette) revealed that veterans in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are likely to receive lower disability ratings than veterans in other states. On claims involving PTSD, which has affected tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, the Montana VA office tended to be the most conservative in rating disabilities.

It’s not right that a veteran in Montana receives lower compensation than veterans living elsewhere. All VA benefit offices are supposed to apply the same standards. The problem isn’t the high ratings; it’s the low ones. Even veterans who rate 100 percent disability and cannot work to earn a living aren’t getting rich on the maximum.

Churning appeals

Getting an initial disability claim processed usually takes about six months nationwide. Appealing the decision takes a couple of years and often doesn’t resolve the issue, Autry said. The result of an appeal may be to send the case back for further consideration by the same office that made the original determination. Appeals can “churn” like that indefinitely, the DAV spokesman said.

Olivas, Montana state commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, has appealed his rating.

This wait-and-churn approach is a terrible way to treat him and other American veterans. The geographic disparities in disability ratings cry out for common sense and consistency. It’s time for Congress to effectively exercise its oversight responsibility. Congress should press the VA to correct these disparities and provide proof they have been corrected. Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester, who has a seat on the veterans affairs committee, ought to take the lead in pressing the case for consistently fair and equal treatment of veterans.

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