Sunday, October 30, 2005

Disabled VET? Take a hike, hey?

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by Larry Scott

Last week the partisan attacks on disabled veterans took an ugly turn as two high-profile Republicans joined the ever-growing camp of fellow party members working to strip veterans of benefits already approved.

The targets are veterans who receive benefits for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) and veterans who have been declared by the VA as being too disabled to work and, therefore, receive compensation under the Individual Unemployability (IU) rating.

First, it was VA Secretary Jim Nicholson speaking on a cable TV show in El Paso, Texas. One of the topics of discussion was the VA’s review of 72,000 PTSD claims that have already been awarded to veterans. The VA has determined that it may have awarded some benefits without proper documentation from the veteran. Veterans’ groups have protested the review claiming that the benefits could not have been awarded without proper documentation.

In an amazing display of ignorance and arrogance, Secretary Nicholson said, "We need to try to restore them [veterans] to the extent that we can. People can be treated for that [PTSD] and most people can recover from that." Note the use of the word “recover,” a word frighteningly close in meaning to the word “cure.” Nicholson cited no medical authority for his opinion that veterans with PTSD can “recover.”

Secretary Nicholson also stated that a "vast" number of veterans who get PTSD compensation don't continue therapy. This is a deliberately misleading statement designed to denigrate veterans and Nicholson offered no statistics to back up his assertion.

According to many PTSD counselors, the major stress on veterans seeking compensation is financial in nature. Once the PTSD claim is approved and compensation is received, that stress is removed and the veteran’s need for therapy declines.

Then, Secretary Nicholson dropped a bombshell on veterans. He said, "Every veteran has a right to appeal their claim indefinitely for the rest of their lives.” Nicholson has set up a revolving door for veterans: file claim, get denied, appeal, file claim, get denied, appeal, ad infinitum.

Most of the 72,000 veterans having their PTSD claims reviewed by the VA served in Vietnam. A great number had to re-file their claim multiple times and had to wait as long as ten years for their claim to be approved. Now, Secretary Nicholson is saying this never-ending appeals process is just fine.

The constant stress of reviews and denials and appeals is tantamount to torture for veterans who suffer from PTSD.

The view from one attorney who represents veterans is that the VA is trying to “rid itself” of high-dollar awards and push disabled veterans into filing for lower dollar amount benefits from the Social Security Administration.

The other attack on disabled veterans last week came from Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (SCVA). Craig held a Senate oversight hearing titled, "The Rising Number of Disabled Veterans Deemed Unemployable: Is the System Failing? A closer look at VA’s individual unemployability benefit.”

The IU rating is a judgment by the VA that a veteran is unable to follow a "substantially gainful occupation" as a result of service-connected disabilities. The minimum requirement for consideration of an IU rating is 60 per cent for a single disability or a combined 70 per cent evaluation with at least one 40 per cent disability. When the VA declares a veteran unemployable, they receive benefits at the 100 per cent level, a little over $2,200 a month.

Senator Craig noted that about 200,000 veterans are now deemed unemployable. Between 1999 and 2004, the number of IU awards more than doubled. It’s interesting to note that the years chosen by Craig are the same years included in the VA’s PTSD review.

At the hearing, Senator Craig stated, "With today’s modern technologies, individuals with disabilities have more opportunities than ever to become productive members of society…” Craig’s clear indication is that ALL veterans can be employed and those who are unemployed are not productive members of society.

The hearing was contentious, and divided along party lines, with support for veterans’ IU benefits coming from Democrat Senators Patty Murray of Washington, Barack Obama of Illinois and others.

Then, Senator Craig went on to twist the testimony of others by saying, "I reject the notion, put forth by some at the hearing, that veterans with disabilities can’t work, that we shouldn’t waste resources even making the effort to try, and that looking for work is somehow demeaning.” No one testified to that. But, Craig had to spin the testimony to achieve his goal of disparaging IU benefits.

The day after the hearing, Senator Craig issued a press release titled, “Craig Wants VA to Help Unemployed Veterans Find Work.” Directly under the title referring to “unemployed” veterans was a graph depicting the rise in awards to “unemployable” veterans.

This deliberate distortion, equating unemployed veterans with unemployable veterans, is disgusting and demeaning. Craig said, “…the presumption must be that every individual with disabilities can overcome barriers to employment.” If that is so, why does the VA rate veterans as unemployable if they meet all the requirements?

The VA currently has excellent programs designed to help veterans become, and stay, gainfully employed. Those veterans who need further assistance qualify for Vocational Rehabilitation programs. Senator Craig said, "The IU benefit should be viewed as the benefit of last resort." It already is! The VA established the IU rating because there had to be a benefit of last resort to protect those veterans who truly cannot work.

One of the few moments of sanity in the hearing came from Cynthia Bascetta, Director of the Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues department at the Government Accountability Office. Bascetta stated, "Incorporating return-to-work practices could help VA modernize its disability program to enable veterans to realize their full productive potential without jeopardizing the availability of benefits for people who cannot work.”

Secretary Nicholson and Senator Craig both claim that they are working for the best interests of veterans. But, it’s all about money. The VA is spending billions of dollars a year on PTSD and IU awards and is seeking ways to lighten what they view as a financial burden.

The previously-mentioned attorney who represents veterans provided me with an email from one of his colleagues. It stated: “…today we got a call from one of the doctors at our local VA. She said she was sending a patient over for me to do his SS [Social Security benefits] claim because he needed help. She said that the VA is trying to drastically cut back on the aid they are giving the Vietnam Era Vets…They are trying to reduce the ratings…She was livid with the treatment the veterans are getting…I have never had a doctor call me up and send one [veteran] directly to us and be so angry at the VA..."

Last week was quite a stressful time for veterans receiving PTSD or IU benefits. First, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson tells veterans suffering from PTSD that their compensation is in jeopardy but that’s okay, because they have the right to appeal ‘til the Lord comes. Then, Senator Craig, Chair of the SCVA, tells veterans who are unemployable that they are really just unemployed and should find work.

Some veterans feel there is a great conspiracy designed to deprive them of their benefits. There is no conspiracy. It’s much simpler than that. It is just the way Republicans do business. Veterans’ benefits have been reduced to the level of just another expense.

What Secretary Nicholson, Senator Craig and other Republicans are doing to veterans is truly adding insults to injuries…injuries sustained on the field of battle…injuries, physical and emotional, that will not, and many times, cannot, heal. When we send our men and women to do battle and they come home with broken bodies and broken minds it is our responsibility, our solemn duty, to care for them.

Most of the veterans receiving PTSD and IU benefits served during the Vietnam-era. As these veterans age, the only lifeline, for many, is their VA benefits. If those benefits are taken away……

Larry Scott ( four years in the U.S. Army with overseas tours as a Broadcast Journalist in Korea and the Azores and a stateside tour as a Broadcast Journalism Instructor at the Defense Information School (DINFOS). He was awarded DOD's First Place Thomas Jefferson Award for Excellence in Journalism. After the Army, Larry was a news anchor on WNBC Radio in New York City. He receives VA compensation for a service-connected disability. Larry is a regular on the Thom Hartmann show on KPOJ radio in Portland, Oregon. Today, Larry resides in Southwest Washington and operates the website VA Watchdog dot Org.

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