Springfield State Journal Register

May 20, 2005

VA official provides benefits report
State has lowest payment average - but it's getting better


By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Confirming that Illinois veterans historically have received the lowest average disability payments per person in the country, the Veterans Affairs Department's inspector general Thursday blamed the problem on demographics and overly generous payments in other states.

In 2004, Illinois ranked last with an average annual payment of $6,961 per veteran. That's a little more than half the $12,004 annual payment in the highest-paying state, New Mexico.

However, the situation is getting better, according to the inspector general's long-awaited report. Looking only at veterans filing new claims - and not counting continuing claims - the state ranked 23rd last year, according to an analysis headed by VA Inspector General Richard Griffin, who talked to reporters Thursday.

The inspector general's report was released just one day before Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson is scheduled to meet with Illinois veterans in Chicago this afternoon.

"If today's veterans are being treated more fairly, what about yesterday's veteran who was a loser under this system?" asked Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who will attend the meeting. "I think they have a right to appeal, and I think the VA in our state should set up a special unit so that these veterans from years gone by can be considered very quickly and receive their fair compensation."

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the report "confirms some of our worst fears - that for 20 years straight, Illinois veterans were getting shortchanged compared to veterans of other states."

Obama added, "The failure of the report to indicate how they would make whole those veterans who have gotten a raw deal in the past was unacceptable, and that is going to be something that I will be posing to the secretary when he comes tomorrow."

The inspector general blamed much of the problem of historically low payments on demographics. Higher-paying states have more enlisted military members than officers, more military retirees, higher populations of Vietnam-era veterans and veterans with more dependents.

But he also acknowledged there were some things under the VA's control, such as increased staffing, better training and more accountability.

He called the VA disability rating system "antiquated," with medical definitions dating back to 1945, and noted there were more disparities in payments for mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome for which decisions are more subjective.

Veterans represented by veterans service organizations received more than those who filed on their own, the study concluded.

Appearing with the inspector general, Adm. Daniel Cooper, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, defended the VA's Chicago regional office.

"I honestly feel that my people in Illinois have tried to do the best that they can. So I don't think basically there is a problem in Illinois" looking at the new claims, Cooper said.

But he said whenever there are discrepancies among regional offices, training is a factor. A strong push to process claims faster also may be to blame, he said.

The inspector general's report was ordered in December in response to Illinois' lawmakers request after the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Illinois veterans were receiving some of the lowest payments in the nation.

However, the report said the problem is with veterans from other states getting overly generous payments, not low payments in Illinois.

For example, New Mexico and other states with higher average payments also have a high percentage of veterans who are granted 100 percent disability for post-traumatic stress disorder. In Illinois, only 2.8 percent of its compensation recipients are rated 100 percent for post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to 4.1 percent nationally.

In a survey of VA staffers who process veterans' claims, 65 percent said the VA didn't have enough staff to ensure timely and quality service, and 57 percent said it was difficult to meet production standards if they thoroughly review the claims before making a decision.