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january/february 2007

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Benefits Surveys Discussed

BY DAVID L. HOUPPERT, ESQ., DIRECTOR, VETERANS BENEFITS

I recently attended the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) Quarterly Veterans Service Organization meeting in Washington. This meeting allows for interaction between the VSOs and Department of Veterans Affairs decision-makers and employees. VA speakers included Robert Reynolds, Executive Management Officer of Policy and Programs; Ray Wilburn, Executive Director, Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission (VDBC); Mike Walcoff, Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations; Keith Pedigo, Director, Loan Guaranty; Janice Jacobs, Brad Flohr, and Michelle Katina, Compensation and Pension Service; Keith Wilson, Director, Education Service; and Tom Lastowka, Director, Insurance.

Some good information was presented and discussed. Of greatest interest to Vietnam veterans were comments made by Ray Wilburn. In accordance with Section 1502 of Public Law 108-136, VDBC is charged with carrying out a study of the benefits that are provided to compensate and help veterans and their survivors with disabilities and deaths attributable to military service. The study focuses on three specific points:

  1. The laws and regulations that determine eligibility for disability and death benefits and other assistance for veterans and their survivors.
  2. The rates of such compensation, including the appropriateness of the schedule for rating disabilities based on average impairment of earning capacity.
  3. Comparable disability benefits provided to individuals by the federal government, state governments, and the private sector.

Upon completion of the study, the commission will produce a report, which will be submitted to the President and Congress.

Wilburn discussed upcoming surveys and sought assistance from the VSOs in attendance. He explained that the VDBC has retained the services of contractors to obtain information for the commission’s study. One such contractor is the Center for Naval Analysis Corporation (CNAC). CNAC has been engaged to help the commission determine the ability of benefits to replace lost earnings capacity and to help offset decreased quality of life. CNAC also is looking at the structure and operation of the VA benefits system and rating determination process.

One tool CNAC is using to obtain relevant data is self-reporting surveys. CNAC will be fielding four different surveys to disabled veterans, surviving spouses, VBA employees, and accredited service representatives. Although these surveys are all geared toward different populations, they will all have the following in common:

  • All surveys are confidential and anonymous
  • Disabled veterans and surviving spouse surveys will be conducted by telephone of a randomly selected representative sample
  • VA raters and service representatives surveys will be conducted electronically over the Internet on the entire population of eligible respondents
  • All analyses will protect and shield individual responses and respondents
  • Only aggregate results will be released
  • Participation is strictly voluntary with informed consent

The first survey will poll disabled veterans. The objectives of this survey are to determine the impact of service-connected disability on perceived quality of life and compare perceived quality of life to the comparison group and to assess labor force participation patterns and factors affecting adherence to treatment. This survey is targeting a sample of 21,221 individuals across 60-plus “cells” formed by crossing systems of primary service-connected disabilities with a range of disability ratings.

The second survey is directed at surviving spouses. The objectives of this survey are to determine the impact of veterans’ service-connected disability on their spouses’ perceived quality of life and life trajectory during the veteran’s lifetime and after and understanding the transition experienced by a spouse following a veteran’s death and what impact benefits and current employment had. The targeting sample of this survey is 1,842 across time since veterans’ deaths, receipt of SBP offset, and age.

The third survey will seek information from VBA raters. The objective of this survey is to learn how the VA raters use the rating schedule, as well as issues they experience with it and the rating process. This survey is based largely on a previous Office of Inspector General survey but has been tweaked to provide research data for the commission. The target population is the entire population of VA raters, which is approximately 1,800.

The fourth survey is directed at accredited service representatives and service officers. The objectives of this survey are to learn about service officer experiences helping beneficiaries and determining how they assess the rating schedule and rating processes. This survey targets the entire population of accredited service representatives and service officers.

Following his presentation on the surveys, Wilburn asked that the VSOs help the VDBC obtain input from respondents. Specifically, Wilburn requested that VSOs encourage participation in the surveys:

  • When asked by sampled beneficiaries
  • When asked by accredited service representatives
  • By including positive items in news-letters
  • By informing service officers in advance of survey

I told Wilburn that VVA would not recommend that our members complete the questionnaires without reviewing advanced copies. Wilburn informed the audience that we would receive copies to review. To date, VVA has been provided an advance copy of only the fourth survey of service representatives. Based on our review of the survey, VVA is unable to recommend that our service representatives take part in the survey. As to the other three surveys, VVA can make no recommendation because we have yet to review the format and the questions.

If you are asked to participate in one of the surveys, please use common sense and remember that your participation is completely voluntary. Any questions regarding the surveys may be addressed to CNAC at vsosurvey@can.org

NEW AGENT ORANGE COVERAGE

During this same meeting the C&P Service provided some information regarding presumptive coverage due to exposure to Agent Orange. The information they shared was announced during the July Compensation and Pension Service Center Managers Conference in Louisville and again on September 21 during the Compensation and Pension Manager’s conference call. Although this is not new information, it has not been widely publicized.

Due to a recent review of classified government documents, the VA is officially recognizing the use of Agent Orange in additional locations outside of the Republic of Vietnam. The addition of these new locations means that those who served in these areas will be able to take advantage of presumptive-service coverage due to exposure to Agent Orange.

The VA currently recognizes that Agent Orange exposure can be conceded to veterans who served in certain units along the Korean DMZ between April 1968 and July 1969. These units are listed in the M21-1MR. C&P Service has expanded this list based on declassified military documents and access to historical information released through the U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute’s Leavenworth Papers. The added units are as: 1st Battalion 12th Artillery, 1st Battalion 15th Artillery, 7th Battalion 17th Artillery, 5th Battalion 38th Artillery, 6th Battalion 37th Artillery, 1st Battalion 31st Infantry (7th Infantry Division), 1st Battalion 32nd Infantry (7th Infantry Division), 2nd Battalion 32nd Infantry (7th Infantry Division), United Nations Command Security Battalion-Joint Security Area (UNCSB-JSA), Crew of USS Pueblo.

If you, or anybody you know, falls into the above categories, please have them consult with an accredited service representative or service officer.

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