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Monday, November 15, 2010

Veterans Affairs: Benefits for Service-Connected Disabilities

Douglas Reid Weimer
Legislative Attorney

Congress provides various benefits to American veterans and their dependents through the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). One of these benefits is disability compensation, which is a monthly cash benefit program for veterans currently impaired from past serviceconnected activities.

A claim for disability compensation is initially analyzed by the VA at the local level to determine (1) whether the claimant is considered a “veteran” (eligible for benefits); (2) whether the veteran qualifies for disability compensation (entitled to benefits); (3) the extent of the impairment and the “rate” of the disability; and (4) the effective date for the compensation.

Three requirements to qualify for disability compensation are (1) medical diagnosis of the current impairment; (2) evidence of an in-service occurrence or an aggravation of the disease or injury; and (3) medical proof of a connection between the in-service incident or aggravation of an injury or illness and the current disability. The requisite standard of proof and certain medical presumptions are set by statute. The VA is required to provide assistance to the veteran in his/her case preparation by providing records and medical examinations. Special rules have been established for certain specific situations involving combat veterans, prisoners of war, and veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

If the veteran is found eligible for disability compensation, the VA then uses the Schedule for Rating Disabilities (SRD) to set the amount of earnings impairment on a percentage basis; the higher the percentage, the greater the compensation will be. Certain complications arise with the use of the rating system. A veteran’s rating may be increased or decreased over time—depending on his/her medical condition. Rating decisions may be appealed administratively.

Legislation passed in the first session of the 111
th Congress increased the 2010 monthly disability compensation payments by providing veterans a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for their VA benefits equal to the COLA for Social Security benefits (P.L. 111-37). However, in an unprecedented situation, no COLA for Social Security benefits was enacted. Therefore, there was no increase in the 2010 VA monthly disability compensation payments. Similarly, legislation passed in the second session of the 111th Congress increased the 2011 monthly disability compensation payments by providing veterans a COLA for their VA benefits equal to the COLA for Social Security benefits (P.L. 111-247). But, in a parallel situation to last year, there will apparently be no Social Security COLA for 2011, and subsequently, no increase in the 2011 VA monthly disability compensation payments.

The 111
th Congress has considered additional legislation that may affect service-connected disabilities and has enacted legislation. The Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-275) provides various benefits and increases in certain existing programs. Title VI deals with compensation and pension matters. Other bills have been introduced to deal with the number of claims pending at the VA and issues related to the receipt of disability benefits. These include H.R. 3504 (the VA Case Backlog Alleviation and Economic Stimulus Act of 2009); H.R. 4121 (the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2009); H.R. 5549 (the RAPID Claims Act); H.R. 5928 (the Veterans’ Disability Claims Efficiency Act of 2010); H.R. 6132 (the Veterans Benefits and Economic Welfare Improvement Act of 2010); S. 3286; S. 3348; S. 3368; S. 3370; S. 3517 (the Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2010); S. 728; and H.R. 1037.

Date of Report: November 1, 2010
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: RL33323
Price: $29.95

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