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Costs for disabled veterans on the rise

By Raymond Taylor
SUN Columnist

What the nation owes each year to veterans who are disabled during service has more than doubled since 2000, rising from $14.8 billion to $39.4 billion in 2011, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The toll of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where troops served repeatedly in combat zones, is a key contributor to escalating costs of individual disability payouts, says Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits.

“I would point first and foremost to multiple deployments,” says Hickey, a retired Air Force brigadier general. “I would call it unprecedented demand.”

The 3.4 million men and women disabled during their service — some of them having served in World War II — are about 15 percent of the nation’s 22.2 million veterans.

As the veteran population has shrunk, the percentage of vets with service-related disabilities has grown. The number of veterans with disability compensation ratings higher than 70 percent has increased at an even faster rate. Compensation ratings are assigned based on the degree of combined disability the veteran faces from his or her conditions, and range from 0 to 100 percent.

The disabled veteran population has increased 45 percent since 2000 and may grow sharply with a new generation who seek compensation for more ailments and are savvier than their elders about their VA rights, say Hickey and veterans advocates.

“We get veterans coming in to us all the time, World War II guys or Korea (War) guys, that never filed a claim because they think they didn’t deserve it,” says Garry Augustine, national service director for Disabled American Veterans.

Augustine, a Vietnam veteran, said his generation was provided little more than their separation papers when they left the service. For the past two decades, however, the VA has offered instruction about benefits to soon-to-be-separating servicemembers. Legislative changes have made such sessions mandatory.

By November, nearly half of veterans who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had filed claims seeking disability compensation, VA data show.

The average number of conditions compensated for each veteran has grown from 2.3 for the World War II generation to 3.5 for those from the Vietnam War to six for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the VA says.

About one in seven disabled veterans were rated more than 70-percent disabled in 2000; today, that ratio is more than one in four, data show. Average annual payouts per veteran have risen to $11,737 in 2011 — an increase of nearly 40 percent after adjusting for inflation.

Among the most common ailments of the current generation are worn-out joints, ligaments and discs in their backs and legs, much of that from carrying body armor, Hickey says. “When you’re wearing it all day long, walking up and down the roads of Fallujah, Baghdad and now Kabul, that has a wear-and-tear effect.”

The number and complexity of disability claims has added to a backlog of pending cases, where 70 percent have been waiting longer than four months for the VA, Hickey says.

Other reasons for rising costs:

• Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange or veterans diagnosed with Gulf War syndrome can be compensated for more ailments.

• WW II veterans’ service-related disabilities worsen with age, making them eligible for additional compensation.

• A change in rules associated with post-traumatic stress disorder make it easier for diagnosed patients to prove the need for compensation.

Trust Fund

The Trust Fund Grant has directed a change of rules. All requests for travel/lodging reimbursement must have the following: Printed copy of appointment, copy of receipt for gas payment and/or receipt of lodging payment. Payment from Trust Fund will be to the amount on receipts: No receipt-no payment.

Ensure you apply for Travel through VAMC Albuquerque, whenever possible.

If a veteran is eligible for VA Travel payments, no reimbursements are authorized through the Trust Fund Grant.

Benefits

For information on VA benefits, call or stop by the Archuleta County Veterans Service Office, located at the Senior Center in the Ross Aragon Community Center.

The office number is 264-4013, fax number is 264-4014, cell number is 946-3590, and e-mail is raytaylor@archuletacounty.org. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Bring your DD Form 214 (Discharge) for applications to VA programs or benefits for which the veteran may be entitled to enroll, and for filing in the Archuleta County VSO office.

Meetings

The following veterans groups meet in Pagosa Springs:

American Legion Post 108: second Wednesday of the month, 7 p.m., 287 Hermosa St.

American Legion Post 108 Ladies Auxiliary: second Tuesday of the month @ 4 pm, 287 Hermosa St.

Veterans for Veterans: every Tuesday, 10 a.m., Quality Inn.

Women’s Group of Spouses of Veterans: every other Monday, 6 p.m., St. Patrick’s Episcopal Parish Hall, 225 S. Pagosa Blvd. Contact Charlotte, 731-1025.

Point Man Ministry (veterans): every Thursday, 9 a.m., Crossroads Church, 1044 Park Ave.

Contacts

Durango VA Outpatient Clinic: 247-2214.

Farmington VA Center: (505) 327-9684.

The Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential support to veterans in crisis, as well as their family and friends 24/7, 365 days a year. Call (800) 273-8255, chat online, or text 838255.

This story was posted on January 24, 2013.