Editorial: Focus on more serious veteran disability claims

Published Sep 1, 2013 at 05:00AM

While some veterans wait a year or more for their disability claims to be processed, employees handling those claims are getting millions of dollars in performance bonuses.

One way those employees increase their chances of earning bonuses is to work on quick, simple claims while avoiding more complex applications. That increases their performance rating, but may mean veterans with more urgent needs wait longer.

News21, an investigative project at Arizona State University, reported this week that the $5.5 million in bonuses paid in 2011 effectively encouraged claims workers to avoid complex cases that require further documentation. The VA’s current push to catch up on a huge backlog could exacerbate the problem, the workers said, in addition to increasing errors. The News21 report was published Tuesday in The Bulletin.

It’s a national shame that veterans can’t get their claims processed in a timely way, including approximately 14,000 with appeals pending for more than two years. Perverse incentives from a poorly designed employee rating system, though, aren’t the only cause.

As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this summer, claims have climbed because of the weak economy, the aging of Vietnam-era veterans and thousands of applications from post-9/ll veterans, as well as the department’s efforts to shift to a digital system.

But central to the problem is the definition of disability. Lt. Col. Gade, an assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy, reported in the Journal that the average applicant now claims eight conditions as disabling, while the average for WWII veterans was one or two. Disabling conditions now include hearing loss, lower-back pain and arthritis from aging veterans, which can be age-related rather than service-related. Those veterans may be entitled to medical care for these routine ailments, but labeling them disabled muddies the definition most of us think relates to war-caused injuries.

If the VA must continue to compensate for such age-related ailments, it could nonetheless establish priorities so that veterans with serious injuries get priority, as Gade urges, and focus on retraining and rehabilitating rather than compensating.

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