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Army might be shortchanging injured soldiers on payments, commission finds

WASHINGTON — The Army might be shortchanging injured soldiers by rating their disabilities with a system that is both unwieldy and inconsistent, the head of a special commission said Thursday.
    Pentagon officials denied they would cheat service members but pledged to investigate. ‘‘I’m trying to make sense of this finding,’’ said acting Army Secretary Pete Geren.
    Testimony to Congress on Thursday by retired Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, chairman of the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission, is the latest to document problems in a system under extra strain as thousands of service members return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Scott suggested there could be an effort to keep costs down as the military rates the severity of soldiers’ disabilities. He said the Pentagon ‘‘has strong incentive to assign ratings less than 30 percent’’ so the military won’t have to pay disability benefits.
    Separately, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said a presidential task force he is heading to improve troop and veterans care is working vigorously and plans to issue recommendations next week.
    One primary focus of his department, he said, has been to pare down the backlog of claims, which currently take an average of 177 days to process.
    ‘‘This is too long,’’ Nicholson told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in written testimony. ‘‘We must and will reduce the pending inventory and shorten the time veterans must wait for decisions on their claims.’’
    In a preliminary review of Pentagon and VA data, Scott’s commission found the Army was much more likely than the other active forces to assign a disability rating of less than 30 percent, the typical cutoff to determine whether a person can get lifetime retirement payments and health care.
    VA ratings tend to be higher, due to a separate system that gives consideration to whether injured veterans are afflicted with multiple disabilities.
    ‘‘It is apparent that service members are not well-served,’’ Scott said at an unusual joint hearing of the Senate Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees.
    His commission was formed in 2004 to study ways to improve the benefits system and is to issue a report later this year.
    During the hearing, lawmakers recounted stories from injured troops and veterans who described long waits, lost paperwork and subjective ratings as they moved from military hospitals to the VA’s vast network of 1,400 clinics and treatment facilities.
    In particular, critics contend the ratings are easily manipulated to limit disability payments and create undue confusion.
    ‘‘This is not a new issue,’’ said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. ‘‘Our nation has a moral obligation to provide quality health care. We as a nation are not meeting this.’’
    Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, decried the poor coordination between the Pentagon and VA after years of warnings and recommendations by congressional committees and a presidential commission.
    Geren defended efforts to improve care, saying he had confidence in a new leadership team installed after disclosures in February of shoddy outpatient treatment and bureaucratic red tape at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
    An independent review group appointed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week that money woes and Pentagon neglect were to blame for many of the problems, concluding that ‘‘leadership at Walter Reed should have been aware of poor living conditions and administrative hurdles.’’
    In recent weeks, the Army has added case managers, set up telephone hot lines and sought to reduce paperwork. It says it will take into account the findings of numerous investigations currently under way.
    ‘‘For ratings 30 percent or above, there is a cost to the Army,’’ said Geren, but he disputed that officials would shortchange troops on benefits.
    ‘‘We have found no evidence the officers and soldiers on the disability boards have been influenced, but that is certainly something we can look into,’’ he said.
    Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England acknowledged problems in the treatment of the increasing cases of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He pledged closer cooperation with the VA but cautioned, ‘‘A full solution is still several years away.’’
    England also said the Pentagon was looking ahead to requesting the money to accelerate the closing of Walter Reed and build a new expanded facility in Bethesda, Md.
    Some lawmakers have suggested that efforts to close Walter Reed during a time of war were misguided.
    ‘‘I do concur it’s in the best interest of men and women to get personnel out of Walter Reed and into Bethesda,’’ England said. ‘‘We don’t have the funding now, but we will ask about that.’’
    ———
    On the Net:
    Senate Armed Services Committee: http://armed-services.senate.gov/
    Senate Veterans Affairs Committee: http://veterans.senate.gov/

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