By Rick Maze
National Guard and reserve members who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are having a harder time than other veterans getting disability compensation claims approved by the Veterans Affairs Department.
New data obtained by Veterans for Common Sense under the Freedom of Information Act shows the denial rate for claims filed by reserve component combat veterans is four times higher than for post-9/11 combat veterans who were active-duty members.
On the positive side, the statistical reports show a 97 percent approval rate for Iraq and Afghanistan claims. But the difference between active and reserve claims could be a sign that the system isn't being fair to reserve component members, who make up 40 percent of this new generation of veterans, said Paul Sullivan, the former executive director of the nonprofit veterans group who identified the problem while he was still with VCS.
"We do not know why this has happened," said Sullivan, now managing director for public affairs at the law firm of Bergmann & Moore. "We do know this is not a new problem." In 2008, the denial rate for Guard and reserve disability claims was twice as high as for other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, so the difference has grown.
"This is disturbing, and what is even more disturbing is we do not know why," said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Funky" record keeping, filing claims without the help of a veterans' service officer who understands the process, or structural problems in how claims are handled could all contribute to the discrepancy, he said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the higher denial rate for Guard and reserve members is a sign of miscommunication between the VA and Defense Department. "Sadly, these figures are hardly surprising given the lack of coordination between VA and DoD," Miller said in a statement.
"Both need to treat veterans of the National Guard and Reserve as they would any member of the armed forces, and this includes providing timely benefits for their service," Miller said. "Once again, this underlines the need for a single electronic medical health record, shared by both departments, as well as better communication between National Guard and reserve components with VA to ensure those who served in either have access to their records."
Guard and reserve members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and have filed benefits claims are, on average, about four years older than their counterparts who served on active duty, which could be a reason for more wear and tear on the body. But while they are older, Guard and reserve members who have filed claims have served less time, on average, which could make it harder to prove a disability was service connected. The average length of service of Guard and reserve members is 3.8 years, compared with an average of 9.3 years for veterans of active service.
There are 1.6 million post-9/11 combat veterans. About 566,000 are receiving disability benefits; 53,000 have been identified with service-connected conditions that merit disability ratings too low to qualify for compensation. Another 15,640 claims were denied, according to the VA records. While Guard and reserve members make up 40 percent of post-9/11 combat veterans, they accounted for 60 percent of the claim denials.
VA reports indicate the hearing disorder tinnitus is the most frequently claimed disability for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, claimed by about 40 percent of post-9/11 combat veterans who were awarded service-connected disabilities. Spinal or cervical injuries or strains account for 24 percent of the awards, while post-traumatic stress disorder appears in 22.5 percent. Details about specific disabilities are not broken down by active or reserve status, making comparisons by conditions impossible, Sullivan said.
Among the almost 900,000 pending disability claims, those from post-9/11 combat veterans make up 186,000 of the backlog, with Sullivan warning that the number is likely to rise.
Post-Vietnam War claims from combat veterans did not peak until a decade after that conflict ended, Sullivan said. "I really think we face a situation where we have 1 million new claims by 2013," he said. "We are getting about 10,000 new veteran patients at the VA and 9,000 new claims filed every month."