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VA Falls Behind on Disability Ratings Overhaul

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Air Force Times – The Veterans Affairs Department is more than a year behind on its plan to overhaul its disability rating schedules, in part because of difficulties in trying to determine lost earnings for particular disabilities, according to a new report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office.

There is no chance that VA will meet its self-imposed 2016 deadline for revising how it assigns the levels of disability that go into determining compensation rates, the report said, noting that VA officials have “moved the original project completion date from 2016 to an unspecified future date.”

In a written response to the report, VA officials said they are taking steps to improve the review process, including appointing a program manager to focus solely on the pay-loss evaluations. They also are trying to develop a plan to update ratings on a regular basis.

VA spent about $40 billion in 2011 on disability compensation for 3.4 million veterans.

The ratings schedule has not undergone a full revision since 1945, GAO said. The ambitious update project involves a medical review that takes into account medical and technological advances in determining the severity of disabilities and also a disability-by-disability review of the earnings loss suffered from service-connected disabilities.

GAO said there are some aspects of the disability review study that VA could have done better and faster, but auditors said that may not matter, as the biggest unresolved issue is how to get veterans, veterans’ groups and Congress to accept whatever changes are made.

Veterans’ groups are already saying the income comparison may not fully take into account lifetime earnings losses for those unable to pursue more “lucrative or fulfilling” careers because of their disabilities, the GAO says. Similar arguments were used to scuttle past efforts use lost earnings as a major factor in setting disability pay levels.

VA has had problems reviewing the issue of earnings losses because it has taken longer than expected to get access to Social Security and Internal Revenue Service records to make comparisons of the earnings of non-disabled veterans and civilians with no military service. That information is needed as a comparison yardstick to the earnings of disabled veterans.

Source: Air Force Times, September 11, 2012, by Rick Maze

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