DOD, VA to test streamlined disability plan

Discussion in 'Disability' started by rainvet, Jul 28, 2007.

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    DOD, VA to test streamlined disability plan By Tom Philpott, Special to Stars and Stripes Pacific edition, Saturday, July 28, 2007

    After months of top-level negotiations, the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are only weeks away from testing a plan to streamline and partially merge their disability rating processes.

    But as first steps are taken toward what a senior defense official said will be “remarkable changes” to the method of setting disability separations and retirements, a blue-ribbon panel has said: Go further. Much further.

    The President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, in releasing its final report Wednesday, recommended getting “DOD completely out of the disability business” by giving VA sole responsibility for setting disability ratings and awarding compensation. Disabled servicemembers would see the current “confusing, parallel systems of ratings and compensation” replaced by a single, simple, more generous system.

    Other recommendations call for:

    A patient-centered recovery plan for each severely injured member.
    Aggressive prevention/treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

    Improved support services for families of wounded members.
    Faster transfer of patient information between DOD and VA.

    Shoring up staff at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center until its closing in 2011.

    Former Kansas Republican Sen. Robert Dole, a disabled veteran of World War II, and Donna Shalala, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration, chaired the nine-member panel. Its recommendation to “completely restructure the disability determination and compensation system” would shrink the military’s role to determining whether members remain fit for duty.

    Those found to be unfit during a “single, comprehensive, standardized medical examination” administered by DOD would be separated with a lifetime annuity tied to rank and years of service. VA then would determine disability ratings and level of disability payment, which would be paid in addition to military annuity. This approach would secure full “concurrent receipt” of military retirement and VA disability compensation.

    The Dole-Shalala report says VA disability payments should have three components: transition money to help with the return to civilian life, earning-loss pay to make up for reduced future earnings and quality-of-life pay “to compensate for permanent losses of various kinds.”

    Disabled vets would continue to qualify for VA health care. But any servicemember found unfit for duty from combat-related injuries also would be eligible for lifetime Tricare coverage. Put simply, the commission said, DOD should focus on keeping a fit force and “acknowledge” years of service while the VA should rate and compensate service-connected disabilities.

    The day the commission released its report, the Senate passed the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act, which has more modest provisions to streamline the VA and DOD disability process, with special focus on ending rating disparities between services and between DOD and VA. It would require the services to use VA standards for rating disabilities and to rate every disability affecting fitness for duty, not just a single disqualifying condition as is routine for some service branches. Any disability rating awarded since Sept. 11, 2001, that resulted in payment of lump sum severance rather than a disability retirement would be reviewed.

    The Senate bill also would require that services use the same statutory presumptions VA uses in determining if a disability is service-connected. It also would raise minimum severance payments to a year’s worth of basic pay for disabilities incurred in a combat zone or from combat operations, and to six months’ basic pay for other disabilities.

    Finally, the bill would mandate pilot programs to test the viability of having the VA assess disability levels before members leave service. Anticipating these changes, senior defense and service leaders have been preparing with VA counterparts to a test a partial merger of their processes.

    William Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, said this plan won’t get DOD out of the “disability business” entirely, but DOD soon could be out of the “disability rating” business and using VA to end any unfair disparities. -------- ---------

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