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Discharged and dishonored: Shortchanging America's veterans

Knight Ridder

Jan 14, 2006 Part 2:

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The VA is a mammoth agency that serves 25 million veterans with a far-flung health care system and a separate disability and pension operation. The agency spends over $60 billion a year, more than $20 billion of it on disability compensation.

But the Knight Ridder investigation found that the VA serves neither taxpayers nor veterans well. Some veterans never get what they're due, while antiquated regulations mean that others are paid for disabilities that have little effect on their ability to hold jobs or aren't related to their military service.

For America's veterans, plus the thousands of soldiers now returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the investigation identified three points where cases often go wrong: the selection of a special representative called a veterans service officer, the review by a regional VA office and the filing of an appeal.

Among Knight Ridder's findings:

Many of the VA-accredited experts who help veterans with their cases receive minimal training and are rarely tested to ensure their competence. These veterans service officers work for nonprofit organizations such as the American Legion, as well as states and counties, but their quality is uneven, and that often means the difference between a successful claim and a botched one.

The VA's network of 57 regional offices produces wildly inconsistent results, which means that a veteran in St. Paul, Minn., for example, is likely to receive different treatment and more generous disability checks than one from Detroit.

Veterans face lengthy delays if they appeal the VA's decisions. The average wait is nearly three years, and many veterans wait 10 years for a final ruling. In the past decade, several thousand veterans died before their cases were resolved, according to an analysis of VA data.

"How a veteran seeking benefits gets treated should not be an accident of geography," said George Basher, the director of the New York State Division of Veterans' Affairs, one of 50 state agencies that help veterans. "Unfortunately, the current system makes that a virtual certainty."

In interviews late last year, then-VA Secretary Anthony Principi and other VA officials admitted to many of the agency's shortcomings, but they said things have gotten better since the Bush administration took over. "This agency was underwater in 2001," Principi said. "My people have made tremendous progress."

The current secretary, R. James Nicholson, who was sworn in recently, had no comment.

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There have been some improvements in the last three years. But when it comes to delays, cases that need to be redone and backlogs, things are the same or worse than they were in the 1990s, Knight Ridder found, when the agency vowed to clean up its act. Listen to Alfred Brown The WWII vet's efforts to get his benefits ended - with his death.

For the family of Kentucky veteran Alfred Brown, that decade brought nothing but frustration. If a decision had come before he died, Brown could have been entitled to nearly 45 years of back pay, his attorney said. Based on VA payment rates, that would have been worth about $30,000. "It wasn't so much the money," said his son Clayton Brown, on a day when he visited his father's grave north of Lexington. "He felt he was robbed. He almost gave his life up, and this is what he was getting in return?"

VA workers are reminded daily of the pledge by Abraham Lincoln " . . . to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan . . . ."

But the task isn't as simple as it used to be.

The VA makes disability payments for injuries as obvious as an amputated leg and as complex as post-traumatic stress disorder. They include combat wounds and peacetime injuries, since veterans are serving their country whether they're in a Humvee in Iraq or in boot camp. Veterans are given ratings from zero to 100 depending on how severe their disabilities are. Payments for a single veteran range from $108 to $2,299 a month, and they're supposed to reflect the vet's lost earnings potential.

But, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the disability payments are based on 60-year-old labor-market assumptions. So veterans who have desk jobs in today's service and information economy can draw checks based on the fact their disabilities would keep them from good manufacturing jobs.

Part One : Part Two : Part three : Park Four : Part Five :
Part Six : Part Seven : Part Eight : Part Nine : Part 10

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