http://www.theolympian.com/news/story/305128.html Published December 20, 2007 Payments vary for vets seeking compensation Chris Adams The Olympian Newspaper, Olympia, Washington State By Chris Adams WASHINGTON - Veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating mental ailments are discovering that their disability payments from the government vary widely depending on where they live, a McClatchy Newspapers analysis has found. As a result, many of the recent veterans who are getting monthly payments for post-traumatic stress disorder from the Department of Veterans Affairs could lose tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits over their lifetimes. The Bush administration has sought to reassure soldiers that they'll be treated fairly, but veterans in some parts of the country are far more likely to be well compensated than their compatriots elsewhere are, the analysis found. McClatchy's analysis is based on 3 million disability compensation-claims records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as separate documents that the VA provided. The analysis is the first to examine the issue of state-to-state variations in compensation for those young veterans who have left the military since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. For veterans, their families and their advocates, the issue of disability compensation is hugely important. Disability checks are now worth up to $2,527 a month for a single veteran with no children. Because they last a lifetime, low payments set now - when veterans are young - have a dramatic effect. So far, more than 43,000 recent veterans are on the disability compensation rolls for a range of mental conditions from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression and anxiety. Of those, more than 31,000 have PTSD, which has emerged as one of the signature injuries from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the number of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's a fraction of what the total will be. The VA's assessments of those injuries, however, are all over the map. Of the recent veterans processed by the VA office in Albuquerque, N.M., 56 percent have high ratings for PTSD. Of those handled by the office in Fort Harrison, Mont., only 18 percent do, the McClatchy analysis found. "There's no reason in the world that a veteran from Ohio should be shortchanged on benefits simply because he is from Ohio," said U.S. Rep. Zack Space, a Democrat from Ohio, where veterans had among the lowest compensation rates in the nation. "And there's no reason a veteran from New Mexico should be getting more benefits simply because he lives in New Mexico." A VA benefits official, Michael Walcoff, said the VA was working to minimize unwarranted variations across the country. Judging a condition such as PTSD, however, can be difficult. "This has been an issue we have been concerned about for a while," he said. "We are trying to learn what we can do to minimize the variances." So far, 1.5 million Americans have served in the global war on terrorism, and half of them have left active service and transitioned to veteran status, VA documents show. Those discharged veterans alone already have produced more than 180,000 disability cases, in which veterans are found to have mental or physical ailments linked to their military service. Most already are receiving monthly compensation checks. Among all the ailments that Ir aq and Afghanistan veterans now have, PTSD ranks fourth, behind ringing in the ear, back strain and hearing loss. But because it tends to be far more debilitating than those other conditions - and generates far higher payments - PTSD is the most important disability to emerge from the recent wars. The McClatchy analysis found that a recent veteran with PTSD on the rolls in Albuquerque is likely to have a higher payment than a new veteran with PTSD on the rolls in the Montana office. The VA workers who decide PTSD cases determine whether a veteran's ability to function at work is limited a little, a lot or somewhere in between. They examine the frequency of panic attacks and the level of memory loss. The process is subjective, and veterans are placed on a scale that gives them scores - or "ratings" - of zero, 10, 30, 50, 70 or 100. McClatchy's analysis found that some regional offices are far more likely to give veterans scores of 50 or 70 while others are far more likely to stick with scores of 10 or 30. Consider the New Mexico and Montana offices, where there are big differences up and down the scale. In Montana, more than three-quarters of veterans have ratings of zero, 10 or 30. In New Mexico, a majority of the veterans have ratings of 50 or 70. On top of that, 6 percent of New Mexico veterans had the highest rating possible - 100, worth $2,527 a month - compared with just 1 percent of Montana veterans. Because payments are loaded toward the highest end of the scale - the difference between the highest rating and the next highest rating is more than $1,000 a month - the huge gap in ratings has a significant effect on how much the VA is paying, on average, to veterans in different states. Factoring in all mental and physical disabilities, the average payment for recent veterans ranges from a high of $734 a month in the Little Rock, Ark., office to a low of $435 a month in Honolulu. McClatchy Newspapers This list contains these elements in this order: regional office, percent of cases with high rating (50 or above) for PTSD, average payment for all disabilities for recent veterans.* Albuquerque, N.M., 56%, $669 Phoenix, 51%, $597 Little Rock, Ark., 48%, $734 St. Paul, Minn., 46%, $557 Providence, R.I., 45%, $579 Denver, 45%, $567 Boston, 44%, $519 Louisville, Ky., 44%, $580 Salt Lake City, 43%, $489 Oakland, Calif., 42%, $559 Portland, Ore., 41%, $660 Detroit, 39%, $536 New Orleans, 38%, $525 St. Petersburg, Fla., 38%, $518 Buffalo, N.Y., 37%, $523 Chicago, 37%, $479 Houston, 36%, $609 Columbia, S.C., 35%, $564 Newark, N.J., 35%, $479 Anchorage, Alaska, 35%, $482 Muskogee, Okla., 35%, $560 Fargo, N.D., 34%, $491 Los Angeles, 34%, $477 Milwaukee, 33%, $531 Waco, Texas, 33%, $530 Honolulu, 33%, $435 Seattle, 33%, $538 San Diego, 33%, $525 Montgomery, Ala., 33%, $571 Philadelphia, 32%, $497 Togus, Maine, 32%, $661 Baltimore, 32%, $527 Huntington, W.Va., 31%, $586 Wichita, Kan., 31%, $533 Winston-Salem, N.C., 31%, $545 White River Junction, Vt., 30%, $492 Indianapolis, 29%, $477 New York, 29%, $487 Sioux Falls, S.D., 29%, $515 Roanoke, Va., 27%, $538 Nashville, Tenn., 27%, $467 Hartford, Conn., 27%, $492 Reno, Nev., 27%, $518 Atlanta, 26%, $494 Cleveland, 26%, $488 Manchester, N.H., 26%, $525 Wilmington, Del., 24%, $462 Des Moines, Iowa, 23%, $530 St. Louis, 22%, $502 Cheyenne, Wyo., 21%, $441 Pittsburgh, 21%, $443 Boise, Idaho, 20%, $502 Jackson, Miss., 20%, $469 Fort Harrison, Mont., 18%, $500 Totals, 35%, $528 * McClatchy identifies "recent veterans" as those who joined the military after the first Persian Gulf War and were discharged sometime after the Afghanistan war started.