Witness Testimony of LTG James Terry Scott USA (Ret.), Chairman, Advisory Committee on Disability Compensation
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: It is my pleasure to appear before you today representing the Advisory Committee on Disability Compensation. The Committee is chartered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs under the provisions of 38 U.S.C. in compliance with P.L. 110-389 to advise the Secretary with respect to the maintenance and periodic readjustment of the VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities. Our charter is to “(A)ssemble and review relevant information relating to the needs of veterans with disabilities; provide information relating to the character of disabilities arising from service in the Armed Forces; provide an on-going assessment of the effectiveness of the VA’s Schedule for Rating Disabilities; and provide on-going advice on the most appropriate means of responding to the needs of veterans relating to disability compensation in the future”.
Your letter asked me to testify on the Advisory Committee’s work to date and my views on the work being done by the VA to update the disability rating system.
The Committee has met thirty five times and has forwarded two reports to the Secretary that addressed our efforts as of September 30, 2010 and fulfilled the statutory requirement to submit a report by October 31, 2010. (Copies of these reports were furnished to majority and minority staff in both Houses of Congress.) The Secretary of Veterans Affairs responded to both reports.
Our focus has been in three areas of disability compensation: Requirements and methodology for reviewing and updating the VASRD; adequacy and sequencing of transition compensation and procedures for service members transitioning to veteran status with special emphasis on seriously ill or wounded service members; and disability compensation for non-economic loss (often referred to as quality of life). I am prepared to answer questions about these areas of focus.
After coordination with the Secretary’s office and senior VA staff, we have added review of individual unemployment, review of the methodology for determining presumptions, and review of the appeals process as it pertains to the timely and accurate award of disability compensation. These issues will be addressed in our next report to the Secretary and the Congress.
Regarding the current project to update the disability rating system, I believe the project management plan that the VA has laid out will achieve the goals sought by all stakeholders, including the Congress. The revised VASRD will be a guide for veterans, medical examiners and claims adjudicators that is simpler, fairer, and more consistent.
The Secretary and the VBA should be commended for undertaking this long overdue revision which has been repeatedly called for by the Congress as well as numerous boards, studies, and reports. Some of you may recall former Senator Dole’s observation at the Congressional outbrief of the Dole-Shalala Commission where he said that the VASRD is 600 pages of band-aids. While perhaps an overstatement, his views reflect those of many participants in commissions and studies.
It is easy to understand why the can has been kicked down the road for a long time. The revision requires significant resources. The VA is working on many high priority projects that compete for resources and management effort.
The revision of the VASRD is not a stand alone operation. It is part of a larger effort that includes electronic claims filing, use of disability questionnaires, and improved claims visibility at all stages. In my judgment, many of the current VBA initiatives depend on a successful and accepted revision of the rating schedule.
Some stakeholders have expressed concern that the revision effort may adversely affect current and future veterans. My own view is quite the contrary. If properly done, the revision will simplify and expedite claims preparation, medical examinations, and claims adjudication. These will, in turn help the VBA reduce processing time and increase accuracy. Consistency among raters and regional offices, another recurring area of concern, should be improved.
There is an inherent resistance to change that must be overcome through involving all stakeholders in the process and insuring that the purpose and results of the revision are understood.
A concern, which I share, is that the process is not scheduled for completion until 2016. However, the scope and complexity of revising and updating all 15 body systems is daunting. The first major step, gathering and assembling the medical data for all body systems is well along. The forums at which each body system is discussed by leading medical experts have resulted in broad agreement on how to update medical terminology and medical advances.
The work groups of subject matter experts for each body system are now analyzing the results of the forums in order to develop specific proposed changes to the schedule.
The econometric data sought in conjunction with GWU will assist in determining the relationship between specific conditions and average impairment of earnings loss.
The process, to include the publishing of draft changes in the Federal Register offers all stakeholders an opportunity to request clarifications and make comments. I believe this step will protect current and future veterans from unintended consequences as revisions move toward implementation.
The Advisory Committee on Disability Compensation is involved in all steps in the rating schedule revision process. As an outside advisory committee, we are able to offer advice and suggestions directly to the Secretary and senior VA management. We listen closely to the subject matter experts from outside sources who meet with us as well as to the VA professionals who are leading the effort. The members have an opportunity to ask questions, offer suggestions, and track the progress of the revision. We are a sounding board for options and proposals. The Committee includes experience and expertise from DoD, VA, Congressional staff, disability law, family programs, and the VSO community.
In conclusion, the Advisory Committee on Disability Compensation is deeply involved in the VA project to revise the VASRD. We appreciate the openness of the VA leadership and staff to our questions and recommendations. We realize that even the best revision will not solve all the complex issues of disability compensation, but the members believe the updated schedule will address many of the noted shortcomings of the current version such as outdated medical terminology, outdated diagnosis and treatment regimens for illnesses and injuries, changes in the social and work environment, and apparent earnings loss disparities between mental and physical disabilities. It will also offer an institutional process for future updates.
Thank you for your attention and the opportunity to testify today. I look forward to your questions.