Genetics won’t touch disability benefits

By Tom Philpott

The Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission unanimously has voted that a veteran’s genetic makeup, which might show predisposition to certain illnesses before entering service, is not a reasonable topic for the commission to study in its review of “service connection” and disability payments.

During an Oct. 14 public hearing in Washington, D.C., the commission also rejected, on a 10-1 vote, a proposal to study whether veterans’ disability benefits should be reduced at some “normal” retirement age to reflect the typical income drop of most American workers as they retire.

The two votes came as commissioners shaped research questions they want answered by staff or through contracted studies to be conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies of Science and by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) over the next year or more.

“If you cannot determine at time of entry into service what the genetic makeup of the potential serviceman is, how can you, when the serviceman leaves in two years, three years or 20 years, base disability benefits on the genetic issue?” asked retired Army Lt. Gen. James T. Scott, commission chairman, in summing up the panel’s decision not to delve into genetics.

Some critics contend the veterans’ disability compensation system is overly generous because it assumes that any disease or ailment that surfaces while a service member is on active duty is “service-connected” and, therefore, compensable, even if family history is suspected to be a factor.

“We’re not going there,” said Commissioner Rick Surratt, a Vietnam combat veteran and deputy legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, after the vote, which he agreed was significant for veterans.

The IOM says it needs 15 months to apply its medical expertise, which the commissioners concede they lack, to review and analyze the Schedule for Rating Disabilities used by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense for setting disability compensation levels.

The IOM will judge how well the rating schedule reflects current medical understanding of the link between impairment and disability; advances in technology and treatments for disabilities; gains in function realized through vocational rehabilitation, environmental adaptations or other special purpose benefits.

The IOM also will review possible weaknesses in the rating schedule that require “additional disability designations such as Individual Unemployability” in order to compensate veterans adequately.

Congress chartered the 13-member commission to conduct a comprehensive review of federal disability benefits for veterans and their survivors. Lawmakers set a tentative deadline for the commission to deliver a final report to the president and Congress within 17 months of its first meeting, which was held May 16 this year.

But Ray Wilburn, the commission’s executive director, said a final report might be delayed at least a year, until the fall of 2007, to allow the IOM and CNA time to complete their studies, integrate their work and inform commissioners.

The CNA will study the appropriateness of current compensation levels for veterans, tapping various data sources and fresh surveys. It also will analyze the effectiveness of the rating schedule in meeting the original intent of Congress that compensation be sufficient to replace “average impairment in earning capacity resulting from such injuries in civil occupations.”

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: