An expert panel commissioned by the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission calls for an overhaul of the U.S. government's system for rating the severity of military veterans' disabilities to set payment levels.
The rating schedule is the same system used by the Defense Department to rate service members before they leave the military to determine how they will be compensated for their injuries or diseases. The system was set up decades ago and needs urgent upgrading.
"With troops being injured nearly every day, the VA's system for evaluating and rating former service members' disabilities should be as up to date as possible," said Lonnie R. Bristow, former president of the American Medical Association.
"Right now, the rating schedule is out of sync with modern medicine and modern concepts of disability," said Bristow, chairman of the IOM committee that looked at the issue. "It's a system originally designed in 1945 and it hasn't kept pace with modern changes in medicine and in our understanding of disability."
The size of monthly payments to U.S. veterans who sustained disabilities during military service depends on their VA disability ratings. A veteran without dependents who receives a rating of 10 percent would receive $115 a month tax free. A rating of 100 percent, meaning an inability to work at all, would entitle the veteran to $2,471 a month.
The VA needs to thoroughly update the system starting with conditions that have not been reviewed in the past decade, with an eye toward dumping outdated conditions and introducing modern thinking on conditions like the signature wound of the Iraq war- traumatic brain injury, diabetes and hearing loss, the panel said. It called for compensation packages to pay new attention to the effects of injuries on everyday functioning and quality of life.
The panel was of the opinion that every veteran should have a thorough assessment of all medical, psychosocial and vocational abilities when they leave the military to find out if they are eligible, rather than waiting until after they prove a disability. That progression now can take months or years and delays the veteran's transition to civilian life.
They believe that the system should be updated every 10 years.
"These changes, especially including quality of life, would be really good news for the vets and their families," said Paul Sullivan, director of Veterans for Common Sense. "But this is an indication of the true cost of war, and it will cost money."
The IOM commission will submit a report in October on all its work to date in the area of veterans' benefits to the Bush administration after completing its study of the two disability systems.