VA revising one-week-old policy of two reviews

June 22, 2005

BY CHERYL L. REED Staff Reporter

The VA pulled back a week-old policy Tuesday that required the most seriously disabled veterans to wait for a second review on their cases before the agency would pay any money.

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs decided it needed to revise a new directive that requires two approving reviews for veterans to be granted disability for post-traumatic stress disorder or to be deemed 100 percent disabled or unemployable.

The decision to pull the policy came two days after it was made public by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The VA directive does not require a second review to deny such cases, angering veterans across the nation who felt the new policy made it easier to turn away veterans than to pay them. Several Illinois veterans felt particularly offended, saying they viewed the policy as payback by VA Secretary Jim Nicholson from whom they have demanded answers about why Illinois veterans have received the least amount of disability pay for the past 20 years.

'This is just wrong'

"This is just crazy. I think this is just Nicholson trying to get back at us for holding his feet to the fire in some ways," said Tom Brophy, a Vietnam-era veteran. "It makes absolutely no sense. They've got an overburdened system as it is. And now he's going to burden it some more and not in favor of the veterans. This is just wrong."

Senators Dick Durbin and Barack Obama also thought the policy "ignored" the possibility that denials could be wrong. The two Illinois senators sent Nicholson a letter on Tuesday calling the policy "disturbing" and demanding that denials for PTSD claims receive extra scrutiny as well.

"We want to make sure our veterans are being treated fairly. When we get indications that that may not be the case, we will jump on it and stay on it," Obama said. "I'm glad to hear they are interested in revising the policy."

But the VA says the part of the policy it is revising involves the kinds of cases that require the review -- not denials.

"They want to clarify whether this covers every possible circumstance in which someone is 100 percent disabled or individually unemployable or only certain circumstances," said Scott Hogenson, VA spokesman.

Illinois last for disability pay

The VA inspector general's investigation last month showed that PTSD and mental disabilities were among the most highly subjective cases in the nation. That report also showed that states where VA offices pay the most disability also have the largest percentage of veterans who are 100 percent disabled for PTSD. Only 2.8 percent of Illinois' veterans are rated 100 percent disabled for PTSD and Illinois is last in the nation for disability pay.

Durbin and Obama cited the inspector general's report as one more reason denials should be included in the extra reviews.

In their letter, the senators also asked that the VA send notices to all Illinois veterans who have filed claims over the last several decades. Nicholson sent a special squad to the Chicago VA last week to re-evaluate denied claims of Illinois veterans but no formal procedure has been set up to review those claims and veterans have not been informed that they can ask that their claims to be re-evaluated.

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