‘Quality of life’ benefit falls short

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Disabled veterans were thrilled in 2007 when the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission asked Congress to enact an immediate “quality of life” increase to disability payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The special increase, said VDBC commissioners, should be across the board, benefiting all veterans with service-connected health conditions, and it should be as large as 25 percent for the most severely disabled.

The commission argued that current disability pay compensates for average loss in lifetime earnings but fails to provide any added monetary award for diminished quality of life.

Quality of life “is addressed in a limited fashion” by Special Monthly Compensation (SMC) payable for loss of limbs or use of limbs, said the commission. But it called for development of a “systematic methodology” for evaluating and compensating for the impact of disability on quality of life. Meanwhile, Congress should allow an interim increase of up to 25 percent.

What happened to that idea?

It fell flat, said retired Lt. Gen. Terry Scott, a former Army Ranger who chaired the VDBC.

“The terms ‘across the board’ and ‘up to 25 percent’ were not well received anywhere outside the veterans community,” Scott explained during an interview Monday in Washington D.C.

His own position on an across-the-board increase for diminished quality of life also has changed, Scott said. That’s significant because he not only had chaired the VDBC through years of hearings and study but Scott now chairs the Advisory Committee on Disability Compensation.

That panel was created by Congress in 2008, part of the Veterans’ Benefits Improvement which directed that the VA secretary modernize the disability compensation system and address its mammoth backlog of claims.

Scott’s fallback position to an across-the-board raise, which the advisory committee also seems to embrace, is to pay something extra to recognize loss in quality of life only for the most seriously disabled veterans.

That could be done by expanding the SMC portion of VA disability pay or by adopting a similarly rigid model for compensating for “non-economic loss.”

“Where I have retrenched, based on this committee’s studies and the things we’ve done, [is to] pretty much agree that the additive monetary benefit for quality of life should be based on really severe disability.”

The “good thing” about using the SMC model, Scott said, “is that it is very tightly prescribed. There is not a lot of latitude to deal with.

You fit inside the parameters of one of those categories or you do not…It is not subject to a lot of subjectivity [or] any sort of gamesmanship.” Feedback from VA and Congress “was that a targeted approach for those suffering from severe disability, and a very clear ‘non-economic’ or quality-of-life loss [payment] is a sellable proposition,” Scott said.

The 11-member advisory committee is a lower-profile entity than was the VDBC. It has met 20 times since fall of 2008 with responsibility both to advise and to pressure the VA secretary on steps, schedules and priorities for modernizing VA’s Schedule for Ratings Disabilities (VASRD).