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VDBC’s ABCs: Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission - First in a Series

Written by veterans  |  11. August 2006

The VDBC's report, expected the latter part of 2007 has the potential of affecting every Veteran and their family who are now or ever will be receiving VA disability compensation or pension. Yet, most veterans have never heard of the VDBC, no less aware of the impact this group could have on their and their loved one's lives. At least now, you will know as much about the VDBC as many of us do. The What: A Little History Public Law PL 108-136, the National Defense Authorization Act, enacted 11/24/03, established the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission (the "Commission" or the "VDBC") whose duties are to carry out a study of "the benefits... that are provided to compensate and assist veterans and their survivors for disabilities and deaths attributable to military service." The scope of their study includes making recommendations on: "The appropriateness of such benefits... of the level of such benefits," and "The appropriate standard... for determining [when] a disability or death... should be compensated." They were also charged with consulting with the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine "with respect to the medical aspects of contemporary disability compensation policies." As to their powers, the Commission "may hold such hearings... consider advisable to carry out [their] purposes..." and "may secure... such [federal] information as consider necessary..." Sounds to me like they can pretty much do whatever they want. On February 24, 2005 the Commission received their Charter from Department of Veteran Affairs. And This Affects Me How While that is the "64 thousand dollar" question, before we even begin to address it, we first should look at a little more background on the processes at play. VDBC and Vietnam Veterans of America National "Firsts" The VDBC held its first public meeting, a two-day affair in May 2005; followed by a meeting in June and July, at which Leonard J. Selfon, Esq. Director, Veterans Benefits Program, Vietnam Veterans of America National ("VVA National") spoke. His 12-page text conclusion included, "We wish to emphasize that as the Committee assesses VA claimants' eligibility for benefits... it will bear in mind the unique nature of military service and the sacrifice of our citizen soldiers... [and that they] are a special class of individuals and deserve a... system as unique as they are...." A Little More Necessary History At the beginning of September 2005, the VDBC posted on their website a list of 31 "potential research questions / issues" that would be discussed at their September 15, 2005 public meeting. At the September meeting, VVA National's Rick Weidman, Director of Government Relations, presented the VVA'S comments as to the appropriateness of these questions. In a nutshell, the VVA maintains that the basic assumptions and premises of the compensation system are sound. The problem is the way that the laws are administered, and a rating schedule that needs to be updated. A Little About the "Research Questions" One question posed - Should VA's definition for "line of duty" change from essentially all disabilities being in the line of duty to only those that occur while performing actual military duty. This "line of duty" issue is closely related to another issue: Should there be a differentiation between combat and noncombat-related injuries and peacetime and wartime injuries? To this I suggest consider the following: a ship at sea being hit by surprise enemy fire; a staffed recruiting office in the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001; off-base housing bombed at night by terrorists, and; a suicide-bomber at a Sunday breakfast on-base chow hall. Now replace: surprise enemy fire with an accidental ship-wide fire; replace the World Trade Towers with a car that has lost control and has destroyed the recruiting office; replace bombed at night with an unexpected tornado, and; replace a suicide-bomber with a boiler explosion. In these examples, exactly what criteria would appropriately have those similarly injured or killed receive different benefits? Meetings and More Meetings Part of the "study" aspect to the VDBC's approach to their job is a series of eight Town-Hall type meetings, usually given in conjunction with VDBC membership meetings attended by 3 members. The dates and locations of these meetings in 2006 were / are as follows: Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida (Feb 15-17); San Antonio, Texas (Mar 6-8); Chicago, Illinois (Apr 11-13); St. Louis, Missouri (May 10); San Diego, California (Jun 5-7); Seattle, Washington (Jul 19-21); Boston, Massachusetts (Aug 2-4); and Atlanta, Georgia (Sep 5-7). According to the VDBC, they "selected specific sites based on criteria that included the concentration of veterans, active-duty service members, National Guard and Reserves, and the location of Veterans Benefits Administration, Veterans Health Administration and Department of Defense facilities." Further, "the goals of these visits are to allow the Commissioners the opportunity to tour local VA and DoD facilities; examine the processes in place which assist disabled veterans and service members and survivors in their efforts to obtain their benefits; and to present these individuals and the general public with an opportunity to learn about the work of the Commission and to offer comments in face-to-face forums." Non-Meeting Actions and Reactions As is (all too) often the case with fact-finding commissions, much of their action results from activity at times other than the planned meetings, and with topics other than those topics on their planned meeting agendas - the VDBC is no different. As example, let's look at SSDI (Social Security Disability Payments). Why? It seems that over ten-percent of service-connected veterans (under the age of 65 with earnings less than $860/month) are also receiving SSDI. As the VDBC's as-defined area(s) did not include SSDI - they asked congress if "[their] charge should be interpreted broadly to mean all related benefits received by disabled veterans under the laws of the United States to include Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments." They were told, among other things, "[it] inescapably [should]." Interesting, yes? However, at least one Veteran Service Organization has strongly suggested that since "service-connected compensation benefits paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs are intended to compensate veterans for disabilities incurred or aggravated by military service. [And since] Social Security disability benefits are intended to compensate insured workers who have contributed to the Social Security program by payment of taxes on their earnings, [t]hese programs serve different purposes and have different eligibility criteria which could result in any proposed comparison turning into one of the proverbial 'apples to oranges.'" Going even one step further, it has been suggested that "It is unconstitutional for Congress to interpret its own laws. Congress passes laws and the courts interpret them." More on SSDI below. Looking At Another "Research Question" Let's turn to a question we Vietnam Veterans know all too well. "Should there be a time limit for filing a claim for service connection? Some commenters have suggested the imposition of time limits for filing compensation claims is reasonable and other commenters have objected on the grounds that such time limits are unwarranted and inconsistent with the intent of disability compensation." As (m)any Vietnam veterans can attest to from personal experience, Agent Orange's effects can take decades for its worse damage to appear - it is a "bullet" that can take decades to rear its ugly head and do its full course of damage. In my own case while subtle signs existed almost from day-one, those symptoms were misdiagnosed. It wasn't until 25 years after leaving Vietnam that my first problems became major and were correctly identified, with my most recent difficulties first occurring a full 37 years after leaving Vietnam. "Should there be a time limit for filing a claim for service connection?" How many ways can you say - no? A VDBC Website In the spirit of full-transparency (I am none too fond of that expression and see and hear it used far too often. For me, it brings to mind the Hans Christian Andersen's folk-tale "The Emperor's New Cloths," of which there was none. However, not wanting to buck-the-tide I continue) the VDBC has had a web page that went into much detail. Considering the VDBC's importance to us all, this is a good thing. I recommend that all of us peruse their site on a regular basis to become familiar with their take on the twists and turns their efforts take. That said; let us look at the VDBC site, and then, one other. The VDBC Website Facelift While the VDBC web page was part of the VA website cluster (http://www.va.gov/) and still can be accessed from one of its pages (http://www1.va.gov/advisory/page.cfm?pg=43), several months back they moved it from its old location (http://www.va.gov/vetscommission/) to its own site (http://www.vetscommission.org/). At that time the organization and content was for the most part unchanged. Recently, the site was given a complete "facelift" and now contains "the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth" -- ah, sorry, too much Andersen -- it now contains exciting, 21st century photo-graphics and icon roll-over sounds. Nevertheless, let us look a little bit at its content. Your Friendly Neighborhood Sitemap One of the first places I turn to when I come across a new (to me) website is its sitemap. While all too often sitemaps could do with a large dose of (re)organization, at the least they are a way, from one page, to get an idea what the site is all about. Unfortunately, as I write this going to the VDBC's sitemap gets you the same 21st century graphics and sounds, and a "Coming Soon!!!" message. Their Home Page On the home page (http://www.vetscommission.org/) we find the following standard link choices: Contact Us, Sitemap, What's New, Documents & Reference Materials, Commission Members, Future Meetings Schedule, Meetings and Minutes, Media Kit, and All Documents. It also contains page-specific links, which as I write this includes a link to: the "National Defense Authorization Act of 2004" which established the commission; the "13 Commission members;" its "public meetings;" and a way to provide "written comments;" that are for "review by the Commission." Some of What is Also Available from the VDBC Site In no particular order here is a very small sampling of the information you can glean from the VDBC website. Twelve of the thirteen Commission members are veterans and nine are combat veterans. Combined they have over 260 years of military experience. Among their awards are: 2 Congressional Medals of Honor; 2 Distinguished Service Crosses; 9 Silver Stars; 6 Distinguished Flying Crosses; 5 Bronze Stars for Valor; 13 Purple Hearts, and; 8 Combat Infantry Badges or Combat Action Ribbons. For those so inclined, the 12 are comprised of 5 Army, 2 Air Force, 3 Marine Corps, and 2 Navy former military personnel. The "All Documents" page links you to pages that list the documents by month. Not at all helpful in determining exactly what documents were generated on exactly which topics - perhaps when the sitemap has "already arrived." The "Media Kit" linked, among other items, to a one-page PDF file "Summary of the Commission's discussion and decision on the collection of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) data" (http://tinyurl.com/orbm9). This summary included links to a number of comment-responses to their initial action as well as other related documents. And, for those who were not following this issue, the VDBC's decision included; "[T]he Commission move[d] forward with studying the SSDI benefits for the only purpose of improving access and timeliness of these benefits to veterans." Right. What is Available from One Other Site Larry Scott (former E-5) served four-plus years in the Army with overseas tours as a Broadcast Journalist. After the Army, Larry went back to radio news, including a stint in New York City at WNBC Radio. He receives VA compensation for a service-connected disability and uses the Portland, Oregon / Vancouver, Washington VA facilities for healthcare. Larry operates the veteran's help website http://www.yourvabenefits.org/. His site includes a page on "Vets Disability Comm" (http://tinyurl.com/nwt72). Whether you agree with his opinions or the information sources he links to, I do think you will find his site a worthy read. A search of his site finds over 40 items related to the VDBC. To quote just one item; "The power of the VDBC cannot be underestimated. They hold the lives of millions of veterans in their hands." Remember As I mention at the beginning of this article, the VDBC is currently expected to render its report during the latter part of 2007. By now I hope you can see the importance of following the VDBC's activities, and the necessity of making your opinion known - either directly or through those organizations that represent us. The VDBC's goings-on brings an old expression to mind. "If you didn't make the time available to take part in the planning, you sure as heck don't deserve the time to complain about what those that did, decided" - or something to that extent. --- Regards, Walt Schmidt

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