This information is from Bruce Whitaker, Chair, Veteran Affairs Committee. (Part 2)
II. **Veterans Should Continue to Be Compensated for Disabilities Incurred or Aggravated by Military Service.
If during their military service, veterans are harmed, the Nation has an obligation to redress that harm. Because of the complexities of modern warfare and the variety of environmental exposures to which servicemembers are subjected during military service, I believe that servicemembers, who have disabilities in excess of those experienced by those who did not similarly serve, should be compensated on the basis of prevalence.
Some reports have suggested that certain disabilities, such as diabetes mellitus and osteoarthritis are unrelated to military service. I urge the Commission to be cautious in discounting associations between military service and disabilities which may occur in the general population.
For example, because of the association between exposure to certain herbicides and diabetes mellitus, a Vietnam veteran who might have developed diabetes at age 60 may be severely disabled by the condition at age 40. Such veterans should be compensated for their diabetes. Often servicemembers are exposed to a variety of environmental toxins whose effects are not currently known and which may never be knowable.
Veterans who place excessive stress on certain joints during military activities or had musculoskeletal injuries not properly treated during military service, may develop osteoarthritis at a much earlier age than would be otherwise expected. Biomechanical stresses affecting the articular cartilage and subchondral bone are associated with osteoarthritis. See, “Recommendations for the Medical Management of Osteoarthrits of the Hip and Knee,” 43 Arthritis & Rheumatism 9 (September 2000) at 1905-1915.
In addition, servicemembers who are harmed as the result of improper medical care during military service are precluded from suing their medical providers under the *Feres *doctrine which bars suits by military personnel for injuries that “arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service.” Feres v. United States, 340, U.S. 135, 146 (1950). As a result of the Feres doctrine, servicemembers whose medical treatment results in an on-going disability must look to the VA for any redress.
Efforts to divide and conquer veterans by treating similarly disabled veterans differently based on whether or not their disabilities were incurred or aggravated by combat, medical malpractice or other special circumstances should be avoided. All who served honorably deserve to be treated honorably.
III**.** The Commission Should Avoid Recommendations to Increase the Financial Burden on Servicemembers and Veterans.
There has been a disturbing pattern of increasing the financial liability of servicemembers and veterans for costs which should be borne by all American taxpayers. When women and men enter military service, they are serving all Americans. When servicemembers incur or aggravate disabilities in service to the Nation, the Nation should make them whole. Just as the costs of guns and bullets are borne by all taxpayers, the costs of mental health care, prosthetics and insurance for servicemembers and veterans should be borne by all taxpayers.
Examples of current efforts to shift the financial burdens of war to servicemembers and veterans include:
Requiring servicemembers who obtain Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI) to purchase mandatory traumatic injury protection insurance;
Proposals to more than double the co-payments for veterans receiving prescription medication from the Department of Veterans Affairs;
Charging service-disabled veterans three times the premium amount for comparable non-disabled persons in order to obtain Service-Disabled Veterans Insurance (S-DVI);
Congressional “pay-go” requirement that any improvements to benefits for service-disabled veterans or their survivors be paid for by charges to veterans or decreased benefits for other veterans and survivors.
IV. The Commission Should Consider Inconsistencies in Ratings Among Regional Offices and Between the Military Services and the VA.
Veterans in Ohio, Illinois and Michigan who receive service-connected compensation benefits receive approximately $4,000 - $5,000 per year less than veterans in Puerto Rico, Maine, and New Mexico for service-connected disabilities. (See, Veterans Benefits Administration Report Fiscal Year 2003 at pages 119-173.) While there will always be some variation in the judgments made concerning the degree of disability attributable to military service, such wide variations appear arbitrary and unfair. Without an analysis of the reasons for such disparities, such wide inconsistencies suggest a lack of fundamental fairness in decision-making.
Similarly, the differences in number of appeals to the Board of Veterans Appeals and the results of such appeals appear to vary significantly from regional office to regional office. Such wide variations should be further investigated and analyzed.
Recent newspaper reports have highlighted the difference between VA regional offices in rating claims. See, Chicago Sun Times articles and Knight Ridder Reports (http://18.104.22.168/charlotte/vet/index.asp?r=28).
A study of disparities between the disability ratings by physical examination boards of the military services and the VA for similar disabilities might be instructive.
**V. **Military Retirees Who Have Earned Retirement Benefits Should Not Be Required to Pay for Disabilities Incurred or Aggravated by Military Service.
Recently, the Congress has made some efforts to recognize that servicemembers who have earned a military retirement benefit by reason of years of service should not be have their military retirements reduced because of VA benefits paid on the basis of service-connected disabilities. No such reduction occurs for those who after a brief period of military service earned federal retirement benefits in another governmental occupation. None should occur for military retirees whose retirement benefits are based upon years of service
VI. The Commission Should Recognize That the Failure to Care for Today’s Veterans Will Discourage Men and Women From Putting Their Lives on the Line in Tomorrow’s Military Service.
I strongly believe that if we are to put the men and women of this Nation at risk of harm in the service of the Nation, then all Americans must be willing to make veterans and their survivors’ whole when harm ensues. Failure to do so will discourage men and women from entering military service. At a time when our country is at war, when men and women are giving life and limb around the world, we must remember that war has costs, not only in dollars, but in the impact military deaths and disabilities have on the lives of those who suffer them. Those costs are a debt of the American people. They must be paid.
Thank you for the opportunity to consider these remarks. I hope that your work will be marked by sound judgment and compassion.