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Date: June 7, 2007
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Overhaul of VA System for Evaluating and Rating Veterans' Disabilities Needed to Ensure Appropriate Compensation for Both Work-Related and Noneconomic Losses
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) needs to overhaul its Schedule for Rating Disabilities -- the tool it uses to determine the degree of disability suffered during military service -- to ensure that veterans receive appropriate compensation and other benefits, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine. The agency also needs to establish a process for keeping the Rating Schedule up to date; some of its elements have not been changed since 1945, and do not adequately reflect current understanding of certain conditions that now occur more frequently, such as traumatic brain injury.
In addition, the agency should make sure that the revised Rating Schedule addresses the extent to which veterans' disabilities affect their quality of life and limit any aspect of their daily lives, not just their ability to work, which is the disability program's current focus. If the revised schedule does not, the VA will need to develop new tools to identify and compensate for these noneconomic losses, said the committee that wrote the report. Written at the request of the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission, the report's recommendations are intended to inform the commission's review of the benefits program and its report to the president and Congress this fall.
"With troops being injured nearly every day, the VA's system for evaluating and rating former service members' disabilities should be as up to date as possible with current medical knowledge of impairment and its effects on a person's functioning and quality of life," said committee chair Lonnie R. Bristow, former president of the American Medical Association. "Right now, the Rating Schedule is out of sync with modern medicine and modern concepts of disability. This report details ways the agency can more successfully carry out the goals of veterans' benefits programs, which were created to recognize the nation's debt to those who serve and compensate them for their sacrifices."
Veterans who have a service-connected disability can receive monthly payments tied to their disability ratings, ranging from $115 a month for a 10 percent rating to $2,471 per month for a 100 percent rating. Clinical professionals medically evaluate claimants and provide their assessments to another group of nonclinical professionals who use this information to determine the applicants' degree of disability using the Rating Schedule, a list of about 700 diagnostic codes, each with criteria for determining the percentage of disability. According to federal statute, the veterans' disability benefits program is supposed to compensate for average loss of earning capacity, though Congress and the VA also have recognized and compensated veterans for other, noneconomic losses since the disability program was codified in the 1920s.
VA should immediately undertake a comprehensive revision of the Rating Schedule, beginning with those conditions that have not been reviewed within the last decade. This step should remove ambiguous criteria and obsolete conditions and introduce current medical knowledge of the effects of injuries and diseases such as traumatic brain injury, diabetes, and hearing loss, the report says. The agency also should reassess the Rating Schedule approximately every 10 years and revise it as needed. Some conditions identified in recent years are not in the Rating Schedule. In addition, VA should adopt new diagnostic codes based on the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) codes and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which are used widely by other health care providers and systems in the
VA should regularly assess whether the Rating Schedule accurately predicts loss of potential earnings and adjust it as needed. Such assessments would ascertain if veterans with higher disability ratings indeed earn less on average and ensure that average earnings at each rating level are the same for all disabling conditions. But the committee concluded that work disability alone is an unduly restrictive rationale for VA's disability program. Veterans who can and do work can be disabled in other aspects of their lives, such as their ability to maintain their family and other personal relationships or to engage in sports, hobbies, or other activities they formerly pursued.
The agency should develop or adapt a scale to measure specific noneconomic effects and loss of quality of life and determine whether the updated Rating Schedule adequately compensates for these negative consequences. If it does not, VA should either modify the Rating Schedule criteria or develop separate mechanisms to do so, the report says.
Additional staff and resources will be needed to update the Rating Schedule and implement other recommendations, the committee noted. VA would benefit from guidance provided by an external advisory committee made up of medical professionals as well as vocational experts and representatives of the veteran community. Likewise, the agency personnel who rate the severity of veterans' disability should have ready access to health care professionals who can provide guidance on medical and psychological issues that may only become apparent during the rating process. Few raters have medical backgrounds, and they do not have medical experts on staff to consult on complex cases.
VA and the U.S. Department of Defense should give every veteran applying for disability compensation a thorough evaluation of all their medical, psychosocial, and vocational abilities and needs at the time of separation from service, rather than conducting such evaluations piecemeal. Veterans may be eligible for additional benefits such as job training meant to help them achieve their full potential in civilian life, but currently before they can even be considered for these services, they first must establish their disability, a process that can take months or even years.
The study was sponsored by the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission. Established in 1970 under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, the
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[ This news release and report are available at http://national-academies.org ]
Board on Military and Veterans Health
Committee on Medical Evaluation of Veterans for Disability Compensation
Lonnie R. Bristow, M.D., M.A.C.P. (chair)
American Medical Association
Professor and Chairman
Department of Orthopedic Surgery
Director, Center for Chronic Illness and Disability, and
Professor of Rehabilitation Science
William J. Herdman Distinguished Professor of Neurology
Professor of Psychiatry
Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, and
Director, Doctoral Program in Clinical Audiology
Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health;
Director, Center for Health Policy and Research; and
Assistant Chancellor of Health Policy
Associate Professor of Medicine and Director
Professor of Medicine and Associate Chair of Medicine for Research
Chief of Endocrinology
Professor of Rehabilitation Psychology and Neuropsychology
Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Regional Director, Medal of Honor Society
John and Emma Bonica Professor of Anesthesiology and Pain Research, and
RJ Vogel and Associates
Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
Rebecca A. Wassem, R.N., D.N.Sc.
Professor of Medicine and Health Policy;
Director, Arthritis Research Group;
Director, Multidisciplinary Clinical
Director, Medical Effectiveness Review for the