A congressional oversight agency is examining the federal government's system for rating veterans' disabilities, portending future changes to veterans' healthcare eligibility.
Although the General Accounting Office's background study of the Department of Veterans Affairs' disability rating schedule has the greatest potential to change disabled veterans' government compensation, it also could affect veterans' eligibility for care at VA facilities.
The VA healthcare system had a $16.2 billion budget in fiscal 1995 and is operating on a temporary budget measure equal to $16.6 billion in fiscal 1996, which ends Sept. 30.
Veterans' service-related disabilities are rated on the basis of loss of income and expressed in percentage. For example, one leg amputated just above the knee is rated as 60% disability, while multiple gunshot or shrapnel wounds rate as 50% disability.
Eligibility for inpatient, outpatient and long-term care is based on that rating schedule. Veterans rated at 50% to 100% disability, for example, are entitled to inpatient and outpatient care at a VA healthcare facility for any medical condition. The VA restricts the healthcare entitlement more tightly for those rated at less than 50% disability, although all veterans theoretically are eligible for care at VA facilities.
Some veterans groups have objected to the study, saying they fear that, in pursuit of budget savings, the study could be used to "devalue" certain disabilities, putting some veterans into more restrictive eligibility categories.
"If you've lost your legs, just because you sit at your job doesn't mean you can do everything," said Richard Schultz, national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans.
"They should not look at our veterans as a drain on the federal treasury," agreed VA Secretary Jesse Brown. "All of a sudden, because they want to balance the budget and give a tax cut, they are looking at that as a way to generate $1 trillion."
But Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee's compensation subcommittee who requested the GAO study, said his interest is not in saving money, but rather in making sure the disability rating system is up to date.
Everett, responding to criticism of the study from Disabled American Veterans during a recent joint hearing of the House and Senate VA committees, said failing to adjust the disability schedule to accommodate changes in medicine and the economy "may not be doing some veterans justice."
"It is possible to end up with an agency that is unresponsive to the people it is meant to serve," Everett said, noting that Disabled American Veterans also criticized the VA for a healthcare system made "inefficient" because of outdated eligibility rules.