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Discharged and dishonored: Shortchanging America's veterans

Knight Ridder

Jan 14, 2006

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Knight Ridder found that disability ratings, which determine the size of a veteran's monthly check, also vary widely.

An analysis of 3.4 million veterans claims shows that major mental ailments, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia, are subject to bigger regional swings than major physical ailments such as bad backs and knees. For example, veterans with PTSD assigned to the Wilmington office are more likely to have the highest disability rating than their counterparts in Lincoln, Neb. In Delaware, 34 percent of those with PTSD have the highest rating; in Lincoln, it's 10 percent.

Diagnosing mental disorders is more subjective, and parts of the country have been slow to recognize them. Different training standards in the past may also have contributed to regional VA differences. Because the major psychiatric disabilities on average pay more than the major physical ones, the wider swings have a dramatic impact on veterans' payments. The different ratings may help explain a puzzle noticed by veterans every time the VA releases its annual report: Average disability checks vary by state.

The VA wouldn't comment on Knight Ridder's analysis but said in a statement that it's investigating regional differences, which it attributed to "extremely complex" factors. The agency "is committed to treating every veteran's claim fairly and equitably" and has nationwide training programs to help eliminate uneven treatment.

The GAO last year reported that the VA "cannot provide reasonable assurance that similarly situated veterans who submit claims for the same impairment to different regional offices receive reasonably consistent decisions."
The final minefield is the VA appeals system, where claims often linger. It's a problem the VA recognizes. "It takes too long. We all agree on that," said Ron Garvin, acting chairman of the Board of Veterans' Appeals.

With the average disability payment now $7,860 a year, back-benefit awards can be substantial because an award is calculated as though the VA made the right decision when the claim was first filed. Some veterans with severe disabilities win $100,000 or more.
But if a veteran dies with his or her case under appeal, the case dies, too. In the past decade, more than 13,700 veterans died while their cases were in some stage of the appeals process, according to a Knight Ridder analysis of a VA appeals records database. (While precise estimates aren't available, the VA said experience suggests a few thousand of them wouldn't have actively pursued their appeals.)

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