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VA denies Guard Benefits

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Fred Marks

October 8, 2008 edition - National Guard and reserve members are more likely than active-duty Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to have disability claims denied and more likely to receive the lowest possible disability ratings — even though they are only half as likely to file claims in the first place.

An analysis of benefits claims prepared by Veterans for Common Sense, based on data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows Guard and reserve members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are twice as likely to have a veterans’ disability claim denied as other veterans of the same operations.

The higher rate of denials and low ratings among reservists do not appear to be the result of filing frivolous claims. Forty-five percent of active-duty veterans of the two ongoing operations filed disability claims, compared with 23 percent of Guard and reserve members who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, said Paul Sullivan, executive director of the nonprofit veterans’ group.

Sullivan said he is unsure what has caused “such an enormous discrepancy” but thinks Congress and veterans deserve an answer. “With 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans filing a claim [with the Veterans Affairs Department] so far, we owe it to our veterans to make sure their claims are adjudicated completely, accurately, quickly and fairly,” Sullivan said.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., wants an explanation. “It should not matter whether you have served in a reserve component or have 20 years on active duty,” said Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “All of these patriotic Americans deserve fair treatment from VA. We need to get to the bottom of why that’s not happening and what VA is doing about it.”

The House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees have asked VA to study variances in disability benefits, including disparities in different areas of the country as well as among minorities and nonminorities, urban and rural veterans, military retirees and those who did not serve full careers, and National Guard and reserve members and other veterans. The committees have given VA one year to do the study and recommend what can be done to eliminate the disparities.

VA officials said in a statement that they make “absolutely no distinctions in processing claims from active duty or Guard and reserve personnel. All claims are considered using the same laws and regulations.”

One explanation for the disparities could be length of service, VA officials said. “The majority of service-related disabilities are chronic diseases or disabilities that develop over time,” the statement says. “Reserve and National Guard personnel are serving on active duty for significantly shorter periods than regular active-duty service members.”

Still, officials said they know reservists need special attention. VA is making “special efforts to reach out to returning Guard and reserve members to ensure they are aware of the VA benefits and services available to them” and that they have help filing claims.

This includes training 54 special transition advisors for the Guard — one for each state and the four territories —to help coordinate VA benefits and services for Guard members and their families.

Peter Duffy, a retired Army colonel with the National Guard Association of the United States, said gaps in personnel and medical records might make it harder for Guard and reserve members to prove they have service-connected disabilities.

They also might not know how to apply for benefits or that free legal assistance is available to them, Duffy said.

The Defense Department and VA have made progress in using electronic medical records, which not only improve treatment but also help in filing disability claims, Duffy said. But electronic records are less helpful to Guard and reserve members, who often don’t have ready access to those records, and their normal medical files often are in the hands of private-sector doctors.

Duffy said reservists returning from deployments do not have the same access as active-duty members to qualified doctors who can evaluate combat-related medical problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

He also said many reservists “are not listing medical issues that might potentially require a medical hold that would keep them from returning home expeditiously.”

A mandatory physical once they return to their home stations might catch problems not reported at demobilization sites, Duffy said, noting that failing to report a medical problem while still on active duty could make it harder for Guard and reserve members to get future disability claims approved.

This story is from VeteransforCommonSense.org and can also be viewed at:  http://www.veteransforcommonsense.org/ArticleID/11288