(AP) Veterans' disability payments should be increased immediately by up to 25 percent as part of a sweeping overhaul designed to compensate for a wounded warrior's lost "quality of life," a special commission recommended Wednesday. Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder are in danger of slipping through the cracks because there is little coordination among agencies to ensure they get the full range of services from needed medical treatment to proper compensation and vocational rehabilitation so they can return to work.
The 2½-year study being released by the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission offers the most comprehensive look yet at the ailing government benefits system that provides millions of injured veterans with about $30 billion a year in payments.
Tracking the findings of recent reports that detailed flaws in veterans care, the 13-member congressional commission concluded in its 544-page report that both the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department fall woefully short in providing adequate mental health care as well as timely and fair disability payments.
But going a step further, the commission also recommended the immediate extra payments to injured veterans, many of whom feel they lose out on benefits because of an overly narrow government focus on earnings losses or other reasons.
That could offer veterans some stopgap relief as the Bush administration and Congress consider proposals from an array of task forces and commissions aimed at fixing an outdated system that critics have long said was broken. Such changes could take into account new medical therapies, prosthetics and other effects of war injuries on the daily functioning of wounded warriors.
"Congress should increase the compensation rates up to 25 percent as an interim and baseline future benefit for loss of quality of life, pending development and implementation of quality of life measures," the report states. "In particular, the measure should take into account the quality of life and other non-work related effects of severe disabilities on veterans and family members."
In an interview with The Associated Press, retired Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, the commission's chairman, said the disability system needed to be revamped, expressing his belief that the Army might be seeking to lowball veterans' disability ratings to avoid paying more benefits.
A key recommendation of the commission seeks to bring more fairness to the government system by shifting more responsibility to assigning benefits from the Pentagon to the VA, which tends to rate disabilities higher, even if it ran the risk of putting additional strains on an already backlogged VA.
Scott cited a Pentagon policy put in place in the mid-1980s at a time of budget restraint that calls for consideration of only one disability when determining benefits, not multiple ones as the VA does. That policy is still in place today, creating a climate in which Army officials might consider at least subconsciously cost-saving factors when awarding benefits, he said.
"We have come up with 113 recommendations - some of them are cheap. Some are easy. Some are extremely hard and complex. Some of them, there is a significant bill attached to it," Scott said. "But what we're hoping is that the Congress carefully looks at all 113."
Among the findings:
After initial screenings, the VA often does not follow up soon enough with re-examinations of veterans with suspected PTSD. The report blamed in part the VA's struggles to reduce its backlog of disability claims, which it said was diverting the agency's attention and resources away from needed PTSD care. The commission called for mandatory re-examinations for PTSD to gauge treatment and other issues every two to three years.
Benefits should be awarded to veterans for any service-related injury, regardless of whether it was incurred during combat.
The VA must make better use of technology as a way to reduce its overwhelming delay of 177 days, on average, in handing out disability payments.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said his panel will closely review the recommendations in the coming weeks.
"Many of these changes may prove costly," he said. "However, as I have stated time and time again, caring for veterans must be viewed as a continuing cost of war."
The commission report comes after the Government Accountability Office last week found that the Bush administration has yet to find clear answers to some of the worst problems afflicting wounded warriors, such as personalized medical care and reducing backlogs in disability pay.
Former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, who stepped down this week, has said his successor will have to be creative in solving intractable delays in payments and improving coordination in care between the Pentagon and VA. Gordon Mansfield, the VA's deputy secretary, is serving as acting secretary pending a nomination