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Witness Testimony of Lieutenant General James Terry Scott, USA (Ret.), Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission, Chairman

Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission

Established Pursuant to Public Law 108-136

1101 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, 5TH Floor
Washington, DC 20004
http://www.vetscommission.org

(202) 756-7729 (Voice)
(202) 756-0229 (Fax)

James Terry Scott, LTG, USA (Ret.), Chairman Ken Jordan, COL, USMC (Ret.)
Nick D. Bacon, 1SG, USA (Ret.) William M. Matz, Jr., MG, USA (Ret.)
Larry G. Brown, COL, USA (Ret.) James Everett Livingston, MG, USMC (Ret.)
Jennifer Sandra Carroll, LCDR, USN, (Ret.) Dennis Vincent McGinn, VADM, USN (Ret.)
Donald M. Cassiday, COL, USAF (Ret.)

Rick Surratt (Former USA)

 John Holland Grady Joe Wynn (Former USAF)

Charles “Butch” Joeckel, Jr., USMC (Ret.)

 

Ray Wilburn, Executive Director
October 10, 2007

The Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission is pleased to submit its report, Honoring the Call to Duty: Veterans’ Disability Benefits in the 21st Century, as the formal written statement to accompany testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The full 562-page report is available on line at www.vetscommission.org/reports.asp.  Attached is the Executive Summary.

Sincerely,

James Terry Scott, LTG, USA (Ret.)
Chairman


Executive Summary

The Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission was established by Public Law 108-136, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2004.  Between May 2005 and October 2007, the Commission conducted an in-depth analysis of the benefits and services available to veterans, service members, their survivors, and their families to compensate and provide assistance for the effects of disabilities and deaths attributable to military service.  The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) expended $40.5 billion on the wide array of these benefits and services in fiscal year 2006.  The Commission addressed the appropriateness and purpose of benefits, benefit levels and payment rates, and the processes and procedures used to determine eligibility.  The Commission reviewed past studies on these subjects, the legislative history of the benefit programs, and related issues that have been debated repeatedly over many decades.

Congress created the Commission out of concern for a variety of issues pertinent to disabled veterans, disabled service members, their survivors, and their families. Those matters included care for severely injured service members, treatment and compensation for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the concurrent receipt of military retired pay and disability compensation, the timeliness of processing disabled veterans’ claims for benefits, and the size of the backlog of those claims.  Another area of concern was the program known as Individual Unemployability, which allows veterans with severe service-connected disabilities to receive benefits at the highest possible rate if their disabilities prevent them from working.  The Commission gave these issues special attention.

The Commission received extensive analytical support from the CNA Corporation (CNAC), a well-known research and consulting organization.  CNAC performed an in-depth economic analysis of the average impairment of earning capacity resulting from service-connected disabilities.  In addition, to assess the impact of disabilities and deaths on quality of life, CNAC conducted surveys of disabled veterans and survivors.  To gain insight into claims processing issues, CNAC surveyed raters from VA and representatives of veterans’ service organizations who assist veterans in filing claims.  CNAC also completed a literature review and a comparative analysis of disability programs similar to those provided by VA.

The Commission received expert medical advice from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies.  Required by statute to consult with IOM, the Commission asked the institute to conduct a thorough analysis of the VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities (hereafter the Rating Schedule) and a study of the processes used to decide whether one may presume that a disability is connected to military service.  In addition, the Commission examined two studies that IOM conducted for VA about the diagnosis of PTSD and compensation to veterans for that disorder.  Unfortunately, a third IOM study—of the treatment of PTSD—was not completed in time to be considered by the Commission.  Additionally, the Commission conducted eight field visits and held numerous public sessions.

Guiding Principles

The Commission wrestled with philosophical and moral questions about how a nation cares for disabled veterans and their survivors and how it expresses its gratitude for their sacrifices. The Commission agreed that the United States has a solemn obligation, expressed so eloquently by President Lincoln, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan….”[1] 

In going about its work, the Commission has been mindful of the 1956 Bradley Commission principles, which have provided a valuable and historic baseline. This Commission’s report addresses what has changed and what has endured over those five decades and throughout our Nation’s wars and conflicts since the Bradley report.  Many of the changes—social, technological, cultural, medical, and economic—that have taken place during that time span are significant and must be carefully considered as our Nation renews its compact with our disabled veterans and their families.  This long-term context, a history of both significant change and key elements of constancy from the 1950s to the 21st century, provides the solid basis for this Commission’s principles, conclusions, and recommendations.

This Commission identified eight principles that it believes should guide the development and delivery of future benefits for veterans and their families:

  1. Benefits should recognize the often enormous sacrifices of military service as a continuing cost of war, and commend military service as the highest obligation of citizenship.
  2. The goal of disability benefits should be rehabilitation and reintegration into civilian life to the maximum extent possible and preservation of the veterans’ dignity.
  3. Benefits should be uniformly based on severity of service-connected disability without regard to the circumstances of the disability (wartime v. peacetime, combat v. training, or geographical location.)
  4. Benefits and services should be provided that collectively compensate for the consequence of service-connected disability on the average impairment of earnings capacity, the ability to engage in usual life activities, and quality of life.
  5. Benefits and standards for determining benefits should be updated or adapted frequently based on changes in the economic and social impact of disability and impairment, advances in medical knowledge and technology, and the evolving nature of warfare and military service.
  6. Benefits should include access to a full range of health care provided at no cost to service-disabled veterans. Priority for care must be based on service connection and degree of disability.
  7. Funding and resources to adequately meet the needs of service-disabled veterans and their families must be fully provided while being aware of the burden on current and future generations.
  8. Benefits to our Nation’s service-disabled veterans must be delivered in a consistent, fair, equitable, and timely manner.

With these principles clearly in mind, the Nation must set the firm foundation upon which to shape and evolve a system of appropriate—and generous—benefits for the disabled veterans of tomorrow.

The Commission believes that just as citizens have a duty to serve in the military, the Federal Government has a duty to preserve the well-being and dignity of disabled veterans by facilitating their rehabilitation and reintegration into civilian life.  The Commission believes that compensation should be based on the nature and severity of disability, not whether the disability occurred during wartime, combat, training, or overseas.  It is virtually impossible to accurately determine a disease’s origin or to differentiate the value of sacrifice among veterans whose disabilities are of similar type and severity.  Setting different rates of compensation for the same degree of severity would be both impractical and inequitable. 

Disabled veterans require a range of services and benefits, including compensation, health care, specially adapted housing and vehicles, insurance, and other services tailored to their special needs.  Compensation must help service-disabled veterans achieve parity in earnings with nonservice-disabled veterans.  Compensation must also address the impact of disability on quality of life.  Money alone is a poor substitute for the consequences of the injuries and disabilities faced by veterans, but it is essential to ease the burdens they experience. 

It is the duty of Congress and VA to ensure that the benefits and services for disabled veterans and survivors are adequate and meet their intended outcomes.  IOM concluded that the VA Rating Schedule has not been adequately revised since 1945.  This situation should not be allowed to continue.  Systematic updates to the Rating Schedule and assessments of the appropriateness of the level of benefits should be made on a frequent basis.

Excellent health care should be provided in a timely manner at no cost to veterans with service-connected disabilities (i.e., service-disabled veterans) and, in the case of severely injured veterans, to their families and caregivers. 

The funding and resources necessary to fully support programs for service-disabled veterans must be sufficient while ensuring that the burden on the Nation is reasonable.  Care and benefits for service-disabled veterans are a cost of maintaining a military force during peacetime and of fighting wars.  Benefits and services must be provided promptly and equitably.

Results of the Commission’s Analysis

The analyses conducted by the Commission with the assistance of IOM and CNAC provide a consistent and complementary picture of many aspects of veterans’ disability compensation. 

Ensure Horizontal and Vertical Equity

For veterans to receive proper compensation for their service-connected disabilities, the VA Rating Schedule must be designed so that ratings result in horizontal and vertical equity in terms of compensation for average impairments of earning capacity.  Horizontal equity means that persons with the same ratings percentage should have experienced the same loss of earning capacity.  Vertical equity means that loss of earning capacity should increase in proportion to an increase in the degree of disability.  A comparison of the earnings of disabled veterans with those of veterans who lacked service-connected disabilities revealed that the average amount of earnings lost by disabled veterans generally increased as disability ratings increased. In addition, mortality rates rose with degree of disability.  Thus, vertical equity is achieved.  The average earnings loss was similar across different types of disabilities except for PTSD and other mental disorders, indicating that horizontal equity also is generally being achieved at the level of body systems. 

Ensure Parity with Nondisabled Veterans

Overall, disabled veterans who first apply to VA for compensation at age 55 (the average age) receive amounts of money that are nearly equal to their average loss of earnings as a consequence of their disabilities among the broad spectrum of physical disabilities. 

The earnings of a representative sample of nondisabled veterans were compared with the sum of earnings plus compensation of disabled veterans to determine the extent to which disability compensation helps disabled veterans achieve parity with their nondisabled counterparts.  Among veterans whose primary disabilities are physical, those who are granted Individual Unemployability are substantially below parity; those who are rated 100 percent disabled and who enter the system at a younger age (45 years or less) are slightly below parity; and those who enter at age 65 or older are above parity.  For those whose primary disabilities are mental, the sum of earnings plus VA compensation is generally below parity at average age of entry, substantially below parity for severely disabled individuals who enter the system at a younger age, and above parity for those who enter at age 65 or older.  Also, among veterans whose primary disabilities are mental, those rated 10 percent disabled are slightly below parity.  Thus, parity is generally present with respect to earnings loss except among individuals whose primary disabilities are mental, among the younger severely disabled, and among those granted Individual Unemployability.

Compensate for Loss of Quality of Life

Parity in average loss of earnings means that disability compensation does not compensate veterans for the adverse impact of their disabilities on quality of life. 

Current law requires only that the VA Rating Schedule compensate service-disabled veterans for average impairment of earning capacity.  However, the Commission concluded early in its deliberations that VA disability compensation should recompense veterans not only for average impairments of earning capacity, but also for their inability to participate in usual life activities and for the impact of their disabilities on quality of life.  IOM reached the same conclusion; moreover, it made extensive recommendations on steps to develop and implement a methodology to evaluate the impact of disabilities on veterans’ quality of life and to provide appropriate compensation. 

The Commission concluded that the VA Rating Schedule should be revised to include compensation for the impact of service-connected disabilities on quality of life.  For some veterans, quality of life is addressed in a limited fashion by special monthly compensation for loss of limbs or loss of use of limbs.  Some ancillary benefits attempt to ameliorate the impact of disability.  However, the Commission urges Congress to consider increases in some special monthly compensation awards to address the profound impact of certain disabilities on quality of life and to assess whether other ancillary benefits might be appropriate.  While a recommended systematic methodology is developed for evaluating and compensating for the impact of disability on quality of life, the Commission believes that an immediate interim increase of up to 25 percent of compensation should be enacted.

A survey of a representative sample of disabled veterans and survivors was conducted to assess their quality of life and other issues.  The survey found that among veterans whose primary disability is physical, their physical health is inferior to that of the general population for all levels of disability, and their physical health generally worsens as their level of disability increases.  Physical disabilities did not lead to decreased mental health.  For veterans whose primary disability is mental, not only were their mental health scores much lower than those of the general population, but their physical health scores were well below population norms for all levels of mental disability.  Those veterans with PTSD had the lowest physical health scores. 

The survey also sought to address two specific issues through indirect questions.  There are concerns that service-disabled veterans tend not to follow medical treatments because they fear it might impact their disability benefits. This premise was not substantiated.  Likewise, when questioned whether VA benefits created a disincentive to work, only 12 percent of respondents indicated they might work or work more if not for compensation benefits; thus, this is not a major issue.

Update the Rating Schedule

The Rating Schedule consists of slightly more than 700 diagnostic codes organized under 14 body systems, such as the musculoskeletal system, organs of special sense, and mental disorders. For each code, the schedule provides criteria for assigning a percentage rating. The criteria are primarily based on loss or loss of function of a body part or system, as verified by medical evidence; however, the criteria for mental disorders are based on the individual’s “social and industrial inadaptability,” meaning the overall ability to function in the workplace and everyday life.

IOM concluded that it has been 62 years since the VA Rating Schedule was adequately revised and made a series of recommendations for immediately updating the Rating Schedule and requiring that it be revised on a systematic and frequent basis.  The Commission generally agrees with these recommendations; however, the Commission does not agree that the revision should begin with those body systems that have not been revised for the longest time period.  Rather, the Commission recommends that first priority be given to revising the mental health and neurological body systems to expeditiously address PTSD, other mental disorders, and traumatic brain injury.  A quick review by VA of the Rating Schedule could be completed to determine the sequence in which the other body systems should be addressed, and a timeline should be developed for completing the revision.

To emphasize the importance and urgency of revising the Rating Schedule, the Commission urges Congress to require that the entire schedule be reviewed and updated as needed over the next 5 years.  Congress should monitor progress carefully.  Thereafter, the Rating Schedule should be reviewed and updated on a frequent basis.

Individual Unemployability

The Individual Unemployability (IU) program enables a veteran rated 60 percent or more but less than 100 percent to receive benefits at the 100 percent rate if he or she is unable to work because of service-connected disabilities.  IU has received considerable attention recently because the number of veterans granted IU increased by 90 percent.  The Commission found this increase to be explained by the aging of the cohort of Vietnam veterans. 

Develop PTSD-Specific Rating Criteria and Improve PTSD Treatment

Concerning PTSD and other mental disorders, it is very clear that having one set of criteria for rating all mental disorders has been ineffective.  IOM recommended separate criteria for PTSD.  Similarly, the CNAC survey of VA raters found that raters believe separate criteria for PTSD would enable them to rate PTSD claims more effectively.  In addition, the earnings analysis described above demonstrates that there is a disparity in earnings of those with PTSD and other mental disorders and that the current scheme for rating all mental disorders in five categories of severity—10, 30, 50, 70, and 100 percent—does not result in adequate compensation.  It is also unclear why 31 percent of those with PTSD as their primary diagnosis are granted IU, especially since incapacity to work is part of the current criteria for granting 100 percent for PTSD and other mental disorders.  It would seem that many of these veterans should be awarded 100 percent ratings without IU.  The Commission agrees with the IOM recommendation that new Rating Schedule criteria specific to PTSD should be developed and implemented based on criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The Commission believes that a new, holistic approach to PTSD should be considered.  This approach should couple PTSD treatment, compensation, and vocational assessment.  The Commission believes that PTSD is treatable, that it frequently recurs and remits, and that veterans with PTSD would be better served by a new approach to their care.  There is little interaction between the Veterans Health Administration, which examines veterans for evaluation of severity of symptoms and treats veterans with PTSD, and the Veterans Benefits Administration, which assigns disability ratings and may or may not require periodic reexamination.  It is evident that PTSD reexaminations have been scheduled with less frequency in recent years due to the backlog of disability claims.  It is also evident that case management of PTSD patients could be improved through greater interaction between the therapy received in Vet Centers and treatment in VA medical centers.  IOM concluded that the use of standardized testing and the frequency of reexaminations should be recommended by clinicians on a case-by-case basis, but did not suggest how that would be achieved.  The Commission suggests that treatment should be required and its effectiveness assessed to promote wellness of the veteran.  Reexaminations should be scheduled and conducted every 2 to 3 years. 

Improve Performance of Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment

The Commission believes that the goal of disability benefits, as expressed in guiding principle 2, is not being met.  In spite of the studies done and recommendations made in recent years, the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program is not accomplishing its primary goal.  The Commission believes that recent studies have provided the necessary analyses and that VA possesses the necessary expertise to remedy this failure.  Simply put, VA must develop specific plans and Congress must provide the resources to quickly elevate the performance of VR&E.

Allow Concurrent Receipt

The Commission carefully reviewed whether disabled veterans should be permitted to receive both military retirement benefits and VA disability compensation.  The Commission also reviewed whether the survivors of veterans who die either on active duty or as a result of a service-connected disability should be allowed to receive both Department of Defense (DoD) Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) and VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC).  Currently, military retirees with service-connected disabilities rated 50 percent or higher are authorized to receive both benefits, which are being phased in over the next few years.  Survivors are not authorized to receive both benefits.  The Commission is persuaded that these programs have unique intents and purposes: military retirement benefits and SBP are intended to compensate for years of service, while VA disability compensation and DIC are intended to compensate for disability or death attributable to military service.  It should be permissible to receive both sets of benefits concurrently. 

In addition, the Commission believes that those separated as medically unfit with less than 20 years of service should also be able to receive military retirement and VA compensation without offset.  Currently, those receiving ratings of less than 30 percent from DoD receive separation pay, which must be paid back through deductions from VA compensation for the unfitting conditions before VA compensation is received.  Those receiving DoD ratings of 30 percent or higher and a continuing disability retirement have their DoD payments offset by any VA compensation.  Priority among medical discharges should be given to those separated or retired with less than 20 years of service and disability rating greater than 50 percent or disability as a result of combat.

Allow Young, Severely Injured Veterans to Receive Social Security Disability Insurance

Among the benefits available for disabled veterans, those not able to work may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  To be eligible for SSDI, an individual must have worked a minimum number of quarters, be unable to work because of medical conditions, not have income above a minimum level, and be less than 65 years of age.  At 65, SSDI converts to normal Social Security at the same amount.  Some very young service members who are severely injured may not have sufficient quarters to qualify for SSDI.  The Commission recommends eliminating the minimum quarters requirement for the severely injured.  Only 61 percent of those granted IU by VA and 54 percent of those rated 100 percent by VA are receiving SSDI.  Considering the very low earnings by those rated 100 percent and the exceptionally low earnings of those granted IU, it is apparent that either these veterans do not know to apply for SSDI or are being denied the insurance.  Increased outreach should be made and better coordination between VA and Social Security should result in increased mutual acceptance of decisions.

Realign the VA-DoD Process for Rating Disabilities

The Commission also assessed the consistency of ratings by DoD and VA on individuals found unfit for military service by DoD under 10 U.S.C. chapter 61.  Some 83,000 service members were found unfit between 2000 and 2006.  DoD rated 81 percent of those individuals as less than 30 percent and discharged them with severance pay, including over 13,000 who were found unfit by the Army and given zero percent ratings.  Seventy nine percent of these service members later filed claims with VA and received substantially higher ratings.  The reasons for the higher ratings are that VA rates about three more conditions than DoD, and at the individual diagnosis level VA assigns higher ratings than DoD. 

The Commission finds that the policies and procedures used by VA and DoD are not consistent and the resulting dual systems are not in the best interest of the injured service members nor the Nation.  Existing practices that allow service members to be found unfit for preexisting conditions after up to 8 years of active duty and that allow DoD to rate only the conditions that DoD finds unfitting should be reexamined.  Service members being considered unfit should be given a single, comprehensive examination and all identified conditions should be rated and compensated.

The Commission agrees with the President’s Commission on the Care of Returning Wounded Warriors that the DoD and VA disability evaluation process should be realigned so that the military determines if the service member is unfit for service and awards continuing payment for years of service and health care coverage for the family while VA pays disability compensation.  However, in accordance with one of our key guiding principles, the Commission believes that benefits should not be limited to combat and combat-related injuries.  Nor does the Commission believe that VA disability compensation should end and be replaced with Social Security at retirement age.

Link Benefits to Cost-of-Living Increases

In its review, the Commission found that the ancillary and special-purpose benefits payments and award limits are not automatically indexed to cost of living.  A few of these benefits have not been increased in many years, and as a result, some no longer meet the original intent of Congress.  The Commission recommends that Congress raise ancillary and special-purpose benefits to the levels originally intended and provide for automatic annual adjustments to keep pace with the cost of living.

Simplify and Expedite the Processing of Disability Claims and Appeals

VA disability benefits and services are not currently provided in a timely manner.  Court decisions, statutory changes, and resource limitations have all contributed to this unacceptable situation.  Numerous studies over the years have assessed the processing of both claims and appeals and have made numerous recommendations for change.  Still, veterans seeking disability compensation face a complex process.  The population of veterans is steadily decreasing with the passing of veterans of World War II and the Korean War.  Yet, the aging of the Vietnam Era veterans means that they are filing original and reopened claims in large numbers.  Technology offers opportunities for improvement, but it is unlikely to solve all problems.  The Commission believes that increased reliance on best business practices and maximum use of information technology should be coupled with a simplified and expedited process for well-documented claims to improve timeliness and reduce the backlog.  The Commission is aware that a significant increase in claims processing staff has been recently approved but is also aware that the time required for training and the slow development of job experience will limit the speed with which results can realistically occur. 

The Commission believes that claimants should be allowed to state that claim information submitted is complete and waive the normal 60-day time frame permitted for further development.

Improve Transition Assistance

A smooth transition from military to civilian status is crucial for veterans and their families to quickly adjust to civilian life.  This goal, often expressed as “seamless transition,” has yet to be fully realized, although VA and DoD have made significant improvements during the past few years.  The two departments’ medical and other systems are not truly compatible, and both departments will have to rely on paper records for many years.  Perhaps the single most important step that can be taken to assist veterans, particularly those who are disabled and their families, and to reduce the lengthy delays plaguing claims processing would be to achieve electronic compatibility.  In addition, the Commission believes that making VA benefit payments effective the day after discharge will help ease the financial aspect of transition. 

Improve Support for Severely Disabled Veterans and their Caregivers

Severely disabled service members who are about to transition into civilian life need far more support and assistance than is currently provided.  An effective case management program should be established with a clearly identified lead agent who has authority and responsibility to intercede on behalf of disabled individuals.  The lead agent should be an advocate for service members and their families.  In addition, VA should be authorized to provide family assistance similar to that provided by DoD up until discharge.  Tricare deductibles and copays are costs incurred by the severely disabled; the Commission believes that these costs should be waived.  In addition, consideration should be given to expanding health care and providing an allowance for caregivers of the severely disabled.  Currently, health care is only provided for the dependents of severely disabled veterans but not for parents and other family members who are caregivers. 

Implement a New Process for Determining Presumption

Various processes have been used to create presumptions when there are uncertainties as to whether a disabling condition is caused by military service. Presumptions are established when there is evidence that a condition is experienced by a sufficient cohort of veterans and it is reasonable to presume that all veterans in that cohort who experience the condition acquired the condition due to military service.  The Commission asked IOM to review the processes used in the past to establish presumptions and to recommend a framework that would rely on more scientific principles.  IOM conducted an extensive analysis and recommended a detailed and comprehensive approach that includes the creation of an advisory committee and a scientific review board, formalizing the process and making it transparent, improving research, and tracking military troop locations and environmental exposures.  Perhaps most importantly, the approach includes using a causal effect standard for decision making rather than a less-precise statistical association.  The Commission endorses the recommendations of the IOM but expresses concern about the causal effect standard.  Consideration should also be given to combining the advisory committee on presumptions with the recommended advisory committee on the Rating Schedule. 

Conclusion

The Commission made 114 recommendations. All are important and should receive attention from Congress, DoD, and VA. The Commission suggests that the following recommendations receive immediate consideration.  Congress should establish an executive oversight group to ensure timely and effective implementation of the Commission recommendations.

Priority Recommendations

Recommendation 4.23

Chapter 4, Section I.5

VA should immediately begin to update the current Rating Schedule, beginning with those body systems addressing the evaluation and rating of posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental disorders and of traumatic brain injury.  Then proceed through the other body systems until the Rating Schedule has been comprehensively revised. The revision process should be completed within 5 years. VA should create a system for keeping the Rating Schedule up to date, including a published schedule for

revising each body system.

Recommendation 5.28  

Chapter 5, Section III.3

VA should develop and implement new criteria specific to posttraumatic stress disorder in the VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities.  VA should base those criteria on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and should consider a multidimensional framework for characterizing disability due to posttraumatic stress disorder.

Recommendation 5.30

Chapter 5, Section III.3

VA should establish a holistic approach that couples posttraumatic stress disorder treatment, compensation, and vocational assessment.  Reevaluation should occur every 2–3 years to gauge treatment effectiveness and encourage wellness.

Recommendation 6.14

Chapter 6, Section IV.2

Congress should eliminate the ban on concurrent receipt for all military retirees and for all service members who separated from the military due to service-connected disabilities.  In the future, priority should be given to veterans who separated or retired from the military under chapter 61 with

  • fewer than 20 years service and a service-connected disability rating greater than 50 percent, or
  • disability as a result of combat.
Recommendation 7.4

Chapter 7, Section II.3

Eligibility for Individual Unemployability (IU) should be consistently based on the impact of an individual’s service-connected disabilities, in combination with education, employment history, and medical effects of an individual’s age or potential employability.  VA should implement a periodic and comprehensive evaluation of veterans eligible for IU. Authorize a gradual reduction in compensation for IU recipients who are able to return to substantially gainful employment rather than abruptly terminating disability payments at an arbitrary level of earning. 

Recommendation 7.5

Chapter 7, Section II.3

Recognizing that Individual Unemployability (IU) is an attempt to accommodate individuals with multiple lesser ratings but who remain unable to work, the Commission recommends that as the VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities is revised, every effort should be made to accommodate such individuals fairly within the basic rating system without the need for an IU rating.

Recommendation 7.6

Chapter 7, Section III.2

Congress should increase the compensation rates up to 25 percent as an interim and baseline future benefit for loss of quality of life, pending development and implementation of a quality-of-life measure in the Rating Schedule. In particular, the measure should take into account the quality of life and other non-work-related effects of severe disabilities on veterans and family members. 

Recommendation 7.8

Chapter 7, Section III.2

Congress should consider increasing special monthly compensation, where appropriate, to address the more profound impact on quality of life of the disabilities subject to special monthly compensation. Congress should also review ancillary benefits to determine where additional benefits could improve disabled veterans’ quality of life.

Recommendation 7.12

Chapter 7, Section VI

VA and DoD should realign the disability evaluation process so that the services determine fitness for duty, and service members who are found unfit are referred to VA for disability rating.  All conditions that are identified as part of a single, comprehensive medical examination should be rated and compensated.

Recommendation 7.13

Chapter 7, Section V.3

Congress should enact legislation that brings ancillary and special-purpose benefits to the levels originally intended, considering the cost of living, and provides for automatic annual adjustments to keep pace with the cost of living. 

Recommendation 8.2 

Chapter 8, Section III.1.B

Congress should eliminate the Survivor Benefit Plan/Dependency and Indemnity Compensation offset for survivors of retirees and in-service deaths.

Recommendation 9.1

Chapter 9, Section II.5.A.b

Improve claims cycle time by

  • establishing a simplified and expedited process for well-documented claims, using best business practices and maximum feasible use of information technology; and
  • implementing an expedited process by which the claimant can state the claim information is complete and waive the time period (60 days) allowed for further development.

Congress should mandate and provide appropriate resources to reduce the VA claims backlog by 50 percent within 2 years.

Recommendation 10.11

Chapter 10, Section VII

VA and DoD should expedite development and implementation of compatible information systems including a detailed project management plan that includes specific milestones and lead agency assignment.

Recommendation 11.1

Chapter 11

Congress should establish an executive oversight group to ensure timely and effective implementation of the Commission’s recommendations.  This group should be cochaired by VA and DoD and consist of senior representatives from appropriate departments and agencies.  It is further recommended that the Veterans’ Affairs Committees hold hearings and require annual reports to measure and assess progress.

One commissioner submitted a statement of separate views regarding four aspects of the report. His statement is in Appendix L.

Additional Resources:

 

Electronic access to the complete report of the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission is available at:  http://www.vetscommission.org

Also available on the Commission’s website are:


[1] Lincoln, Abraham, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865, http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=38.