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VA struggling to calculate lost wages for wounded vets, GAO report shows

Disabled veterans — many already beset by bungled health-care benefits or by a lack of health insurance — are facing still another bureaucratic log jam: a year-plus lag in simply calculating how much each vet is losing in wages specifically due to their long-term wounds.

According to a report issued Monday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an initiative by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to revise its disability-ratings schedule has become alarmingly bogged down. The GAO put Congress on alert that lawmakers may need to step in to jump start the effort.

In 2009, VA recognized a critical need to overhaul how it rates the disabilities of former service members, including an entirely fresh analysis into the amount of earnings that non-working, disabled veterans are losing in today’s economy. That ratings schedule hasn’t been fully rewritten since 1945.

There's good and the bad here, according to the GAO:

The positive: “The current revision effort takes a more comprehensive and empirical approach than VA’s past efforts,” the GOA reported. “VA has hired full-time staff to revise the rating schedule’s medical information and plans to conduct studies to evaluate veterans’ average loss of earnings in today’s economy.”

The not so positive: “This change, in part, has resulted in VA falling behind schedule. As of July 2012, VA is over 12 months behind in revising criteria for the first categories of impairments.”

After digging deeper into the red-tape tangle, GAO experts found that VA hasn’t figured out how to churn out more timely research “on the impact of impairments on earnings,” and that the agency doesn’t have a solid plan (specific benchmarks or updated deadlines) as to how to finish the project.

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And given the massive work overload already afflicting VA, the agency urgently needs a written strategy to plot out the potential effects any disability-schedule changes will have on operations, “including impacts on an already strained claims workload,” the report said.

Modernizing the disability-compensation schedules would ultimately make VA leaner, the GAO said, just as costs are mounting to financially care for thousands of disabled U.S. troops.

“It is important that VA update and maintain its rating schedule to reflect current medical and labor market information to avoid overcompensating some veterans with service-connected disabilities while under-compensating others,” the report said.

Last year, VA spent roughly $40 billion on disability compensation for 3.4 million veterans, MilitaryTimes reported

This sentence in the report may (or may not) provide solace to those veterans who are unable to hold down jobs: “VA agreed with the recommendations and noted plans to address them,” according to the report’s authors. 

In the meantime, however, the GAO suggested that Congress may want “to consider various options to modernize VA's disability benefits program ... and, if necessary, propose relevant legislation for congressional consideration.”

For example, the report said, a new bill might impel the creation of “explicit quality of life payments” to veterans who have service-connected disabilities. 

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