Government disability payments skyrocketing despite fewer veterans

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U.S. Congressman Mike Michaud, candidate for governor in Maine, speaks at the Maine Democratic Convention in Bangor, Maine, Saturday, May 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael C. York)

Even though there are fewer veterans now than a decade ago, the government is paying nearly three times as much in disability payments as it did then, according to a budget analysis that says the war on terrorism has left troops more severely injured than previous conflicts did.

Annual disability spending has jumped from $20 billion in 2000 to $54 billion last year, the Congressional Budget Office said in its analysis last week that showed a complex web of factors.

“Growth in spending for veterans’ disability compensation since 2000 has been driven by large increases both in the number of veterans receiving payments and in the average amounts of those payments, which in turn have been influenced by policy changes at VA, the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and conditions in the labor market,” the CBO said.

One major difference is the level of injuries sustained by veterans. Those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who receive a disability check have an average of 5.4 injuries, compared with 3.6 per Vietnam veteran and 2.4 for veterans of World War II and Korea.

That’s because the VA put policies into place to make it easier for recent veterans to apply for disability and because of the nature of the wars of the past decade, the report said.

Disabled veterans are also getting 60 percent more in payments than the average in 2000, the CBO said.

While the rate of losing a major limb or organ has increased over the decade at war, the higher rate of injuries stems chiefly from other injuries. Environmental factors such as exposure to burn pits, going on multiple deployments, and an aging population of reservist troops are having an increasing effect on disability.

The high rate of mental illness among recently returning veterans is also forcing the VA to pay more in benefits to veterans who cannot hold jobs because of their disability. Forty percent of veterans receiving these benefits got them because of a mental disorder in 2012, the report showed.

Rep. Michael H. Michaud, Maine Democrat and ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, requested the CBO report to examine how to minimize the skyrocketing costs of disability payments, according to a committee staffer.

Just prior to or any time after leaving the military, service members can apply to see whether they qualify for a monthly disability check from the VA. Veterans’ disabilities are categorized by a percentage based on the number and severity of their injuries. While the injuries must have happened during the veteran’s time in the military, they don’t have to be directly connected to service.

CBO auditors looked at eight options to cut costs.

The biggest savings — $119 billion over the next decade — would come from preventing veterans from receiving retirement pay and disability at the same time.

Requiring veterans to file applications within five years of leaving the military could save $28 billion over two decades, while cutting off applications after 20 years would save $9 billion.

Taxing VA disability benefits, which are tax-exempt, would generate an extra $64 billion for the government.

However, most of the moves would be met with heavy political opposition.

Lawmakers tried to lower the cost of living adjustment for military retirement pay as part of last year’s budget deal, but veterans groups forced a quick retreat, and lawmakers repealed the cut weeks later.

 

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