In this four part series, we examine the War at Home faced by veterans who return from active duty, and resources for veterans and their families. If you are a veteran or family member in need of legal assistance, we welcome you to contact the attorneys for veterans at Bosley & Bratch. We proudly serve veterans from all branches of the military in all 50 states.
Wherever you are and whatever your needs may be, our firm is here to help.
The Crisis in Veterans Disability
A. Current Crisis
1. Disability Claims
Over the past several years, the VA has experienced a steady increase in workload – in claims receipts, claims complexity, and more direct contact with increasing numbers of veterans. For example, disability claims from returning war veterans, as well as from veterans of earlier periods, increased by 33 percent from 2000 to 2004. According to Rep. John Hall, Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs, the VA currently has a backlog of 650,000 pending claims and another 147,000 that are under appeal.
To complicate the problem further, most of these claims were filed by veterans from previous wars (a claim or appeal can be filed years after discharge from service). With veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan this backlog is likely to increase. Harvard public-finance professor and former Clinton administration Commerce Department official Linda Blimes released a 34-page study in February 2007 on the long-term cost of caring for veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in it she estimates that more than 700,000 veterans will flood the system in coming years.
Additionally, a recent article in the VFW’s magazine indicated that PTSD claims are on the rise from pre Iraq/Afghanistan veterans as a direct results of repressed memories being stirred up by images from Iraq/Afghanistan.
After the recent publicity stemming from the incident at the Walter Reed VA Hospital attempts are under way by Congress to overhaul the entire VA system including disability claims. The various proposals run the gambit of extremes and it would be premature to predict the ultimate outcome.
Although accurate numbers are nearly impossible to determine due to the transient nature of the people, certain estimates have been gathered that present a startling truth that we have a significant population of homeless veterans in the United States. The VA estimates that nearly 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night and nearly 400,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year.
Below is a brief glimpse at the statistics on homeless veterans:
Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups (CHALENG) for Veterans (2005)
- 195,254 homeless veterans
National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
- 33% homeless men are veterans and only 12.7% of general population are veterans.
- 45% suffer mental illness
- 50% have substance abuse problems
- 67% served 3 or more years
- 33% were stationed in a war zone
- 25% have used VA Homeless Services
- 89% received an honorable discharge
B. Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Process
1. Initial Claim
A veteran, veterans spouse or dependent of a veteran may be entitled to disability benefits if the veteran suffers a service-connected disability resulting from disease or injury incurred in or aggravated during active military, naval, or air service. 38 U.S.C. §101(2); 38 C.F.R. § 3.1(d).
AFTER SERVICE IS COMPLETE NOT WHILE IN SERVICE.
It is important to note that it is not required that the disease or injury occur in the line of duty (on the job) only the person be in active military service. For active military this means at any time of the day or week. For guardsmen/reservists it means only during the window of time that they are on active duty whether it be for mobilization or training and then only for injuries not for illnesses. 38 U.S.C. § 101; 38 C.F.R. § 3.6.
In all cases, the veteran must have been discharged under other than dishonorable conditions. 38 U.S.C. § 101(2), 38 C.F.R. § 3.1(d) 2006.
Keep in mind that the VA reserves the right to make an independent determination of eligibility and may determine that a veteran is ineligible even though they have discharge documents of other than dishonorable discharge. This is all the more complicated by the fact that there is no such thing as a “dishonorable discharge.”
b. Service-Connected Disability
In order to establish a service-connected disability the veteran must establish that he has a current disability that was precipitated by a disease, injury or event that was service-connected. The disability must result from disease or injury sustained in or aggravated during active duty, active duty for training or inactive duty for training. These terms are defined in 38 U.S.C. § 101. Also, the disability must have occurred in the line of duty and discharge or release must have been under other than dishonorable conditions. The service records of the service-member are generally controlling on the issue of a veterans status.
c. Filing a Claim
A claim for disability benefits is initiated by filing a VA Form 21-526.
d. Disability Ratings System
The VA uses a system of Rating Schedules to rate disabilities by assigning a percentage from 0% – 100% for each disabling condition. The more severe or disabling the condition the higher the percentage assessed. The Rating Schedules are found at 38 C.F.R. § 4.
If a veteran has more than one disabling condition the VA uses a Combined Ratings Table found at 38 C.F.R. § 4.25 to combine the ratings into a total percentage.
The dollar amount of benefits awarded is determined by the Compensation Rate Table. The rates vary depending on whether the veteran is married, has children, and/or dependent parent(s). As of this writing, the base rate for a single veteran is $117 at 10% up to $2,527 at 100%.