Quicker compensation on its way

By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist

Disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs would reach veterans sooner, and with special swiftness for severely wounded veterans and their families, under legislation to upgrade the VA disability rating process unanimously passed by the House on July 30.

The Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Modernization Act (HR 5892) is the first major bill that freshmen Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y, has led through the House as chairman of veterans’ affairs subcommittee on disability assistance.

In an interview, the 60-year-old Hall, a professional musician, was upbeat as though he had written and produced another hit song. In this case the reviews will come from veterans and their families; from Senate colleagues who also must embrace the bill’s 13 provisions if they are to become law; and, in November, from voters in his Hudson Valley district.

“I’m thrilled,” Hall said. “I’ve co-sponsored and worked on many other bills, but this is the first one I shepherded through committee and worked on for a year. It’s my first major piece of legislation so, to have it pass with all green up on the board, was really exciting.”

As the 429-0 vote came in, Hall said he looked for Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn on the House floor to thank the subcommittee’s ranking Republican for his contributions on the bill.

Hall’s bio shows he left college early to pursue a musical career. In 1972 he co-founded the band Orleans and co-wrote numerous popular songs including “Still the One” and “Dance with Me.” He recorded with other performers too, including Bonnie Raitt, Chet Atkins and Linda Ronstadt.

But in discussing highlights of HR 5892, Hall sounded like a seasoned policy wonk comfortable discussing every detail. He said he is cautiously confident that the Senate, at a minimum, will include most of the bill’s provisions in their own omnibus VA benefits bill this fall.

“There are some very good things for veterans here, especially for severely injured veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq,” Hall said.

Here are highlights:

PARTIAL DISABILITY RATINGS — For veterans who suffered amputations, paralysis from spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries or other indisputably severe conditions, VA would be required to issue partial disability ratings as soon as veterans or their families file claims. It’s not right, Hall said, that some severely wounded veterans and their families still wait months for VA to begin paying compensation.

VA RATING SCHEDULE — VA would have to establish an 18-member advisory panel of disability experts to recommend how to overhaul the decades-old Veterans Affairs Schedule of Rating Disabilities (VASRD). Revisions should raise compensation levels to cover loss of quality of life as well as lost earnings capacity, the sole yardstick today.

VA RATERS’ WORK CREDITS — VA also would be directed to study and revise the system of work credits given raters and adjudicators of compensation claims. Credits toward “end-of-year bonuses,” Hall said, now emphasize to speed over thoroughness in claim processing. That leads to more errors, more appeals and more reopened cases, he said.

Others provisions aim to reduce claim processing times and improve consistency in decisions across VA regions for similar injuries and ailments.

Surviving spouses or children would be able to stand in for veterans who die during the claim process rather than having to file their own claims anew starting again in the VA regional office.

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