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Panel supports greater disability benefits for veterans

25% increase is urged for lost 'quality of life'

WASHINGTON - Veterans' disability payments should be increased immediately by up to 25 percent as part of a sweeping overhaul designed to compensate for a wounded warrior's lost "quality of life," a special commission recommended yesterday.

The 2 1/2-year study released by the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission offers the most comprehensive look yet at the ailing government benefits system that provides millions of injured veterans with a total of about $30 billion a year in payments.

Tracking the findings of recent reports that detailed flaws in veterans' care, the 13-member congressional commission concluded in its 544-page report that both the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department fall woefully short in providing adequate mental health care as well as timely and fair disability payments.

But going a step further, the commission also recommended immediate extra payments to injured veterans, many of whom feel they lose out on benefits because of an overly narrow government focus on earnings losses or other reasons.

That could offer veterans some stopgap relief as the Bush administration and Congress consider proposals from an array of task forces and commissions aimed at fixing an outdated system that critics have long said was broken. Such changes could take into account new medical therapies, prosthetics, and other effects of war injuries on the daily functioning of wounded warriors.

"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 quality of life measures," the report states. "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."

In an interview with the Associated Press, retired Lieutenant General James Terry Scott, the commission's chairman, said the disability system needs to be revamped, saying the Army might be trying to lowball veterans' disability ratings to avoid paying more benefits.

A key commission recommendation seeks to bring more fairness to the government system by shifting more responsibility for assigning benefits from the Pentagon to the VA, which tends to rate disabilities higher, even if it ran the risk of putting more strains on an already backlogged VA.

Scott cited a Pentagon policy established in the mid-1980s at a time of budget restraint that calls for consideration of only one disability when determining benefits, not multiple ones as the VA does. That policy remains in place, creating a climate in which Army officials might consider - at least subconsciously - cost-saving factors when awarding benefits, he said.

"We have come up with 113 recommendations. Some of them are cheap. Some are easy. Some are extremely hard and complex. Some of them, there is a significant bill attached to it," Scott said. "But what we're hoping is that the Congress carefully looks at all 113."

Among the findings:

Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder are in danger of slipping through the cracks because there is little coordination among agencies to ensure they have all the services they need, from medical treatment to proper compensation and vocational rehabilitation so they can return to work.

After initial screenings, the VA often does not follow up soon enough with additional examinations of veterans suspected of having post-traumatic stress disorder. The report blamed in part the VA's struggles to reduce its backlog of disability claims, which it said was diverting the agency's attention and resources away from needed PTSD care. The commission called for mandatory reexaminations to gauge treatment and other issues every two to three years.

Benefits should be awarded to veterans for any service-related injury, regardless of whether it was incurred during combat.

The VA must make better use of technology to reduce its overwhelming delay of 177 days, on average, in distributing disability payments.

Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said his panel will closely review the recommendations in coming weeks.

"Many of these changes may prove costly," he said. "However, as I have stated time and time again, caring for veterans must be viewed as a continuing cost of war."

The commission report comes after the Government Accountability Office last week found that the Bush administration has yet to find clear answers to some of the worst problems afflicting wounded warriors, such as personalized medical care and reducing backlogs in disability pay.

Former VA secretary Jim Nicholson, who stepped down this week, has said his successor will have to be creative to solve intractable delays in payments and improve coordination in care between the Pentagon and VA. Gordon Mansfield, the VA's deputy secretary, is serving as acting secretary pending a nomination of a successor by President Bush.

"VA appreciates the efforts of the recent commissions created to find ways to improve the disability benefits process for eligible veterans," VA spokesman Matt Smith said in response to the report. "Our goal is to help our disabled veterans become whole and continue their lives by providing them with healthcare, rehabilitation, as well as disability, education, and home loan benefits."

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