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Veterans’ Disability Commission Releases Report

After two and a half years, the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission released its more than 500-page report containing 113 recommendations. Most of those suggestions had been made earlier—either in the Wounded Warrior Assistance Act, which most experts think will be passed later this year; by the Independent Review Group, established by the DoD; or in the Dole-Shalala Commission report presented in July.

The 13-member commission recommended that the Veterans Administration (VA) be given sole responsibility for rating disabilities; the Army would continue to determine fitness for service. Also among the commission’s recommendations were requiring the armed services to follow the VA rating schedule, increasing disability pay up to 25 percent until a complete overhaul of the system is finished and having the services reassess ratings decisions at least to the year 2000 for veterans who were denied disability retirement and separated with fewer than 30 years of service.

President Bush has sent a plan to Congress that would reform the disability compensation system for future disabled veterans, an alternative to current benefits for veterans retired or separated from service since October 7, 2001.

That plan, too, would allow the services to retain ratings for fitness of service and provide pensions for those considered unfit, but it would also give the VA the responsibility to care for and compensate soldiers determined to be permanently disabled.

The Dole-Shalala report recommended that VA payments for lost earnings stop when veterans begin to draw social security; the President’s proposal did not include that recommendation. Some veterans’ groups oppose the plan as a replacement for the wounded warriors compensation already in conference. Some oppose it because it proposes that the VA would restructure its disability and payment rates and regulations after a seven-month study, and because the VA secretary would declare those regulations.

In an editorial in the Washington Post, Dole and Shalala pointed out that the mandate of the presidential commission they chaired was to deal with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and insisted that those who want to reform the entire system for all former servicemembers must not be allowed to get in the way of reform to benefit new veterans.

The DoD is set to launch its own new disability system, an interim plan the Pentagon says is its best effort to improve the system quickly without having to seek congressional approval. One provision is that veterans medically retired could apply for and get VA benefits immediately. According to Bill Carr, undersecretary of defense for Military Personnel Policy, the improved system will cut the time in half between when a servicemember is found unfit for duty and when he or she begins receiving VA disability payments. The wait currently averages 177 days.

DoD’s plan will be phased in as a pilot program at three military hospitals in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The pilot program will eliminate the separate military and veterans health exams now required as well as the separate systems of awarding disability ratings. Servicemembers would have one physical and be rated equally; how their condition developed would be irrelevant. DoD would continue paying severance pay and disability retired pay, and the VA would continue paying disability compensation. As rapidly as possible, the plan will expand to other hospitals that treat the most troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although differences exist among the various proposals for changes in the disability system, Carr said the DoD pilot and future plans will likely remain essentially unchanged no matter which congressional resolution is adopted.

VA Secretary Nominated. President Bush has nominated Lt. Gen. James B. Peake, U.S. Army retired, M.D., as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). He would replace Jim Nicholson, who announced his resignation July 17 and stepped down October 1.

Dr. Peake was Surgeon General of the U.S. Army from 2000 until his retirement in 2004. Before that he was a commander in several medical positions, including commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School.

A 1966 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Peake was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry. He was a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in Vietnam, where he was wounded twice.

After serving in Vietnam, Peake attended medical school at Cornell University on an Army scholarship. In 1972, he returned to the Army to complete his internships and residencies, including a general surgery residency at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons and the American College of Cardiology. He is a 1988 graduate of the Army War College.

Dr. Peake is currently the chief medical director and chief operating officer of QTC Management, which provides medical examination and electronic medical record services to government agencies. From 2004 to 2006, he was executive vice president and chief operating officer of the nonprofit international health foundation Project HOPE.

As VA secretary, Dr. Peake will have as his immediate focus the implementation of the recommendations of the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors. The veterans disability system is “largely a 1945 product,” he said at the White House after his nomination, and it is “time to do some revision.”