- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

As it braces for a flood of war-disabled veterans, the nation’s disability compensation system for former troops has become a $26 billion behemoth bloated and backlogged in part by overgenerous benefits for minor maladies barely tied to military service, if at all.

Case in point: More than 120,000 vets from earlier eras are collecting lifetime benefits for hemorrhoids, which they are not required to show resulted from their military duty.

Thousands more are receiving monthly compensation for bumps on their faces from shaving or for scars so small they are hard to see — and will for the rest of their lives.

In fact, hemorrhoids are the 11th-most-common disability for which U.S. vets are compensated, after such conditions as defective hearing, arthritis, diabetes and hypertension. A conservative calculation of the cost of the benefits to veterans for hemorrhoids alone could be $14 million a year or more.

With the first wave of what could be as many as 700,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan already applying for benefits, worries arise that they could soon experience delays or a funding crunch because the system has expanded far beyond its initial intent of compensating veterans for loss of earning power resulting from service-related illnesses or injuries.

As a result, some critics estimate that perhaps 775,000 of the 2.6 million veterans on the rolls in 2005 are getting monthly checks for ailments that don’t hurt their ability to work, often are treatable, are common in the civilian world, and frequently are the result of the ordinary aging process.

Darryl Kehrer, former staff director for the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on benefits, says the combat veterans of the “war on terror” will be ill-served by a system that some studies have shown spends $1 billion a year on such claims, which also contribute to the current 600,000-claim backlog. The average wait now for benefits is six months, a lag that could balloon to twice that, or more, when Iraq and Afghanistan vets fully enter the pipeline.

“This does a disservice to veterans who are truly disabled, [and] to the men and women coming back from combat,” who now must get in the back of the line, Mr. Kehrer said.

For the first time in 50 years, these issues and others weighted with similar emotion are being examined by a blue-ribbon commission charged by Congress with finding fixes for a system that all agree is overloaded and under scrutiny.

While veterans service organizations such as the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans find plenty to fault in the current system, they vehemently object to any effort to limit the kinds of disabilities for which veterans can be compensated, or to require more stringent proof that a condition is directly connected to time spent in uniform.

They serve as vigilant defenders of the parameter that has come to underpin the disability compensation system: That any disease or injury that occurred during active military service, or was aggravated by it, entitles a former service member to lifetime indemnity payments that the nation owes to those who serve in compensation for their sacrifice. If the price tag is astronomical, so be it.

“Whatever it takes, for anyone with a service-connected condition. Period,” said David Autry, deputy director of communications for the disabled vets group.

Government audits for more than a decade have criticized the system as a post-World War II relic predicated on 1945 standards that don’t reflect the change in America’s economy from a farming and manufacturing base to a service one. Vast advances in medical care and technological progress has led to new devices that improve life for the disabled and allow them to work.

The Department of Veterans Affairs uses a rating system for allocating benefits that classifies a vet’s condition as between 0 percent and 100 percent disabling. By the most recent count, more than 700,000 of the 2.6 million veterans receiving compensation were rated 10 percent disabled — the lowest level eligible for cash benefits. At that grade today, the monthly check for a veteran is $115.

Vets do not have to show that their service caused the impairment or that their wages are lower than they could have been. And, although it is not explicit in the disability laws Congress has passed, there exists an implied intent to compensate vets for losses in their quality of life. That does not have to be proved.

Instead, the standard is, essentially, that a condition must have manifested itself during the time the service member was in uniform — whether or not the ailment was a direct result of military duty. And, once approved, the benefit continues — even for those who are retired or in well-paying jobs — until the veteran dies. The only disqualification comes if the condition occurred as a result of misconduct.

Among those recently granted a new 10 percent disability was a veteran who had been wounded in combat in Vietnam, hit by a fragment from a grenade in October 1966. Nearly 30 years after that injury, the vet filed for benefits at the Veterans Affairs office in Chicago, not for the shrapnel wound — for which he already was being compensated — but for his hemorrhoids.

Though his medical exam when he left the service after his Vietnam tour documented no sign of the hemorrhoids, and he first sought VA medical care for the affliction in 1993, his hemorrhoids were ruled to be military service connected. As such, the vet was eligible to receive $115 a month for the rest of his life in compensation, the VA’s Board of Veterans’ Appeals deemed last May.

Veterans groups say it is far more common for vets to be denied legitimate claims than approved for illegitimate ones.

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