Proposal would add benefits for disabled

The Bush administration is preparing a legislative proposal that would establish a separate and, under most circumstances, more generous disability package for service members who are injured in war or while training for war, sources said.

Under the plan, recommended by the Dole-Shalala commission, service members found unfit for duty as a result of combat or combat-training injuries, regardless of the number of years served, would qualify for an immediate lifetime annuity from the Department of Defense.

Annuity amounts would be based on the formula used to calculate regular retired pay: 2.5 percent of basic pay multiplied by years of service. A wounded warrior with two years of service thus would get 5 percent of basic pay. Likewise, a service member injured in combat training who had served 10 years when found unfit would get 25 percent of basic pay.

These members also would be get lifetime Tricare, the military health and pharmacy plan. Separately they would get their disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for any and all service-connected injuries or ailments. VA compensation likely would be raised under the plan to include a quality-of-life allowance. But the portion VA compensation now provides, and intended only to cover reduced earnings capacity, would stop at age 65 when Social Security begins.

The legislation is being drafted by the Defense Department and VA officials and they continue to work out critical details. One issue outstanding is whether the changes should be applied retroactively, perhaps to all combat-related disabled members injured since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But the Bush administration has decided that these disability pay changes should apply only to members with injuries from combat or combat training. Under the White House plan, noncombat-disabled members still would come under current service disability retirement, with percentage awards based only on conditions that make the individual unfit for service. This point is expected to be vigorously opposed by advocates for disabled members. Though they generally are excited about the changes planned for combat-related injuries, advocates see stark inequities in having separate disability packages, one for wounded warriors and one for members with other service-connected injuries or ailments.

Though advocates for disabled veterans see the Dole-Shalala disability pay reforms as an overwhelming positive for service members, there are anomalies to be addressed, they said.

Several military associations and veterans groups met July 31 with Karen Guice, the Dole- Shalala commission’s deputy staff director, to clarify what commissioners intended regarding the two military disability systems. Retired Air Force Col. Mike Hayden, a benefits expert with Military Officers Association of America, said Guice assured the group that commissioners, if asked, would recommend that their disability pay reforms extend to all disabled members, not just the combat injured.

That seems in keeping with the report’s criticism of the confusion and complexity that now exists with the Department and VA having separate disability systems. Dole-Shalala would end that dual track, removing Defense from the rating business. Yet the White House seeks to have separate disability systems within Defense itself, citing the same report. This has drawn criticism even within the administration as concerns rise over the impact on morale of categorizing disabled members based on where or when they are injured.

President Bush, during an Aug. 13 visit to the VA medical center in Washington, D.C., said the Dole-Shalala recommendations “make a lot of sense, and we would ask for the Congress to pass those … as quickly as possible, so I can sign them into law.”


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