Veterans groups are venting their frustration over a Washington Post editorial that calls on Congress to more closely scrutinize veterans’ disability benefits claims as a way to cut costs.
The April 3 editorial suggests that one reason the Department of Veterans Affairs’ budget has rocketed from $45 billion in 2001 to more than $300 billion in 2023 is that the post-9/11 wars have higher disability rates when compared with all veterans due to “improved battlefield medicine and a broader understanding of the array of service-connected injuries and disabilities.”
In other words, many veterans who were wounded in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere suffer from lifelong injuries and other ailments that would have killed them in previous wars.
Noticeably absent from the editorial was any mention of how 20 years of war — the longest period of sustained conflict in U.S. history — may have contributed to the increase in the number of disabled veterans.
But the real problem, according to the editorial, is that the VA has not significantly revised its disability ratings system since 1945, when most veterans worked jobs that required physical labor, whereas most jobs in today’s information and service economy require a different set of skills.
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Noting that “disability payments based on those ratings go to veterans tax-free and continue, with some exceptions, for the entirety of a veteran’s life,” the editorial argues that Congress needs to modernize the disability ratings system. It also cites a December 2022 report from the Congressional Budget Office — which has also been widely criticized by veterans — that suggested phasing out veterans’ disability benefits as they earn higher salaries.
“The Congressional Budget Office estimates limiting payments for veterans who earn more than $170,000 a year would save $253 billion over the next decade,” the editorial says. “Congress could alternatively tax the benefits, or some portion of them, particularly for new recipients with high incomes.”
That report caused a storm when it was shared on social media two weeks ago. When VA Secretary Denis McDonough was asked about the CBO’s proposal on disability benefits on March 23, he told reporters bluntly: “We think it’s a bad idea, and we’re not going to do it. You have my commitment that we won’t do it.”
The editorial concedes that none of the changes it recommends would be easy, “But the moral responsibility Americans have to those who fought for the country is of diminished value if it does not align with the fiscal responsibility Americans have to keep their financial house safe and sound.”
Task & Purpose sent the Washington Post several questions about the editorial, including whether the editorial board feels that it is too easy for veterans to receive disability benefits and if the board disagrees with McDonough’s appraisal of the CBO’s idea on disability benefits.
A spokesman for the newspaper said that all the questions were answered in the editorial itself and declined to comment further.
When asked to respond to the argument made by the Washington Post’s editorial, VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said no cuts to veterans’ disability benefits are being considered.
“Disability benefits are what veterans have earned for their service and sacrifices on behalf of our nation,” Hayes told Task & Purpose on Tuesday. “As Secretary McDonough said during his last press conference, ‘we think that [this is] a bad idea, and we’re not going to do it. You have my commitment that we won’t do it.’ On our watch, veterans will always get the benefits that they deserve.”
The Washington Post’s editorial has not gone over well with many veterans’ groups. Ryan Gallucci, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a blistering statement on Tuesday saying the VFW was shocked to see the Washington Post endorse “a recycled compilation of anti-veteran talking points against which the VFW has fought for years.”
“It is laughable that the employees of one of the richest individuals in the world have the audacity to suggest disabled veterans should be the persons responsible for balancing the federal budget — instead of their wealthy billionaire benefactors who notoriously skirt their tax liabilities,” Gallucci wrote in the statement.
Gallucci also wrote that the VFW would have been happy to talk to the editorial board about why veterans have deserved their disability benefits, but the newspaper did not reach out to the group before the editorial was published. Moreover, he argued that money spent on disabled veterans’ benefits is the cost of defending the Washington Post’s right to free speech.
“If the Editorial Board is so worried about moral responsibility, maybe they should pick up a weapon and stand a post,” Gallucci wrote.
Comedian and veterans advocate Jon Stewart told Task & Purpose that he disagreed with how the editorial characterized the process by which veterans are awarded disability benefits.
“The insinuation of fraud or abuse or ‘generosity’ is misleading and misplaced, Stewart said.
Lindsay Church, co-founder and executive director of Minority Veterans of America, said that since the editorial was published, they have spoken to several veterans who are frustrated and concerned that their disability benefits may be taken away.
“That’s a really scary possibility, especially for people who are living on the edge with 30% disability and worry that their disability is going to get cut,” Church told Task & Purpose. “Thirty percent may not seem like a lot to some people, but to some folks that’s what they get by with.”
Disability benefits recognize that veterans will have to deal with their injuries for the rest of their lives and that they might not live to reach retirement age, said Church, a Navy veteran.
Church is 100% disabled due to a botched surgery that they underwent while in the Navy. They have been unable to sue the Navy for medical malpractice due to the Feres Doctrine, which prevented service members from filing lawsuits against the Defense Department over any injuries or deaths that occurred as a result of their service. Even though troops have been able to file some malpractice claims against the military in recent years, few have been approved.
“While I can work right now, I’m also missing 36 inches of rib, have a spinal cord stimulator in my chest, and I’m staring down the barrel of a tenth surgery that will disrupt everything about my working abilities,” Church said. “I know many other 100% service-connected disabled veterans that experience the same tumultuousness about whether or not their disability is going to impact their day-to-day working relationship.”
Kaitlynne Yancy of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said that she believes it is unfair to make wounded veterans bear the fiscal responsibility for balancing the government’s budget
The U.S. government should not look at curtailing or testing veterans’ disability benefits for the sake of reining in spending, especially since many veterans continue to deal with lifelong physical and mental injuries, said Yancy, IAVA’s associate director for government affairs.
“We promised that we would take care of our veterans, and that also included disability benefits,” Yancy told Task & Purpose. “Our veterans earned these benefits by serving. Many of them will never have the bodies that they had when they joined the military.”
Still, some veterans said they do agree with part of the editorial’s premise, namely that it is time to reform the disability rating system.
Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative veterans group, has called for modernizing the VA’s benefits and services programs that date back to the 1940s, said John Byrnes, the group’s deputy director.
“Congress should apply the independent assessment commission model to examine the VA’s practices while measuring outcomes and effectiveness, studying the long-term impact on veterans, and ultimately driving innovative reform options,” Byrnes told Task & Purpose.
Former Marine Corps Maj. Kyleanne Hunter, who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as an attack helicopter pilot, said she believes it would be good for the U.S. government to take a new look at disability benefits because the types of injuries and ailments that troops suffer from have evolved over time.
Historically, there has also been a wide range of ethnic, racial, and gender disparity in how disability benefits are awarded, in part due to long-standing assumptions of which veterans have seen combat, Hunter told Task & Purpose.
While Hunter supports reforms to the disability compensation system, she also thinks the entire U.S. government needs to look at all the costs involved in sending service members to war, not just how much money it is providing to disabled veterans.
“If we’re going to say that we need to cut back on the types of benefits that we’re giving, well maybe we need to cut back on putting people in the position that they’re going to be injured to begin with,” Hunter told Task & Purpose.
Hunter said she receives VA disability benefits for injuries she sustained as a pilot, and since Congress passed the PACT Act, she has also applied for benefits due to her exposure to toxins from burn pits, which her oncologist believes created a tumor in her left eye that had to be removed.
One issue she had with the Washington Post editorial was that she got the sense that it was arguing it is too easy for veterans to receive disability benefits, she said.
“I will say that it is not,” Hunter said. “It is not an easy process to go through, as someone who is in the midst of working through it again. It is not a simple process. It’s not like they just throw benefits out there, like ‘You get benefits’ and ‘You get benefits.’”
According to Mary Kaszynski, director of government relations at VoteVets, a liberal veterans group, The Washington Post’s editorial board has shown that it does not have a firm grasp of the process by which veterans receive disability benefits.
“I think there is a little bit of a mistaken belief or misperception that these are just handouts that are given to veterans the day they transition from military to civilian life,” Kaszynski told Task & Purpose. “That’s not at all the way the system works.”
Kaszynski described the editorial board’s argument as “disgraceful,” adding that the U.S. government should provide the VA with more funding to reduce wait times rather than treating the VA as a “wasteland of fraud and abuse.”
“Veterans benefits should not be on the table in any form,” Kaszynski said. “Even considering that is a betrayal of the promise that we made to these folks when they signed up to defend our country and to make enormous sacrifices on behalf of our country.”
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