Oct 24: Harvard Professor Linda Bilmes’ Research Leads to Improved Compensation for Injured Veterans

Harvard Kennedy School of Government

October 23, 2008 – Research spearheaded by Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Linda Bilmes is making an impact on the lives of injured American veterans.

One of the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is traumatic brain injury (TBI), usually caused by the blast waves from roadside bombs. Estimates indicate 320,000 returning U.S. troops have suffered a TBI during their deployment. Many of these will also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological conditions.

“Disabilities among returning troops now appear to be a greater problem than we had assumed,” said Bilmes. “If we fail to provide these veterans with a basic living stipend, we will see increasing rates of suicide, homelessness, domestic violence and substance abuse. These consequences will raise the true cost of the war even higher.”

Bilmes has worked with a team of neurologists and psychiatrists to estimate the long-term medical and economic consequences of these injuries. In particular, recent work has found that mild brain injuries cannot be detected by scans. Some 15 percent of individuals who suffer mild injuries will eventually suffer from serious cognitive deficits such as memory loss or neurological problems such as seizures.

These findings have contributed to recent changes in the way the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) compensates victims of mild traumatic brain injury. Previously, sufferers were awarded a maximum of 10 percent disability, regardless of the severity of their symptoms. The VA has now raised the maximum level of compensation to 40 percent.

In her book “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict”, (co-authored with Joseph Stiglitz) Bilmes writes: “… many of the injured will be unable to get jobs providing family health care benefits; Medicaid will pick up at least part of the tab… The combined cost of health care, VA disability, and Social Security disability for our moderate scenario comes to nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars; in the best case scenario, it is still almost half a trillion dollars.”

In a press release from the VA, Secretary James B. Peake said the changes inspired in part by Bilmes’ work “will allow VA decision makers to better assess the consequences of these injuries and ensure veterans are properly compensated for their residual effects.”

Bilmes is widely considered one of the leading experts in US budgeting and public finance. She has held several senior positions in government, including assistant secretary and chief financial officer of the US Department of Commerce, and deputy assistant secretary of commerce for administration in the Clinton administration.

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