Thursday, March 5, 2009

Disabled deserve a simpler system

Disabled deserve a simpler system

By By Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii)
Posted: 03/02/09 06:02 PM [ET]
As a nation at war, we are reminded that generations of Americans have been asked to serve their country, and many have answered by risking life and limb as members of our armed forces. From the Revolutionary War on, we have tried to answer this question as a people: How should we compensate those who are injured while serving in the military?

Today’s veteran disability compensation system is complicated and burdensome for both veterans and the government. What should be a clear path toward fair and timely relief has become a maze that can leave veterans and their advocates wandering for years. Many of the hurdles are the result of good intentions and incremental policy. Congress has increased opportunities for veterans to appeal, and created safeguards that are meant to protect veterans, but which now are a part of the difficulties they face.

After decades of decline, the number of veterans receiving disability compensation and pensions started to increase in 2002. Driven by two factors — the aging of the general veteran population and our prolonged involvement in two overseas conflicts —VA’s caseload is increasing. In fixing our attention on our troops abroad, we cannot lose sight of those who have returned wounded.

Veterans can feel the impact of a combat injury immediately, but their compensation for that injury is anything but automatic. Most veterans wait six months for a decision on an initial disability claim. Veterans who appeal may spend more time waiting for a decision than they spent in combat.

We are past the question of whether the claims processing system needs to be reformed. The question now is how to reform it — how to simplify the process and improve timeliness without sacrificing accuracy. The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is moving to address this issue. Earlier this month, I held a hearing on the appeals process, seeking ideas from veterans’ advocates on how to improve the current approach.

There is also broad agreement that the system for assigning disability ratings, which has not been comprehensively overhauled since 1945, needs to be updated. Last session, I held a series of hearings on reforming the disability compensation system, and that effort will continue this session.

Much of the committee’s attention this Congress will be dedicated to determining how veterans should be compensated and improving the compensation process. President Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki have both expressed the desire for change at VA. I look forward to working with them to improve the system for today’s veterans and those who will wear our nation’s uniform in the years to come.

Akaka chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

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