VA Benefits:

Fundamental Changes to VA's Disability Criteria Need Careful Consideration

GAO-03-1172T: Published: Sep 23, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 2003.

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Cynthia A. Bascetta
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This testimony discusses our past reviews of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability programs as Congress considers the fundamental issue of eligibility for benefits and the related issue of concurrent receipt of VA disability compensation and Department of Defense (DOD) retirement pay. Our work has addressed these issues in addition to identifying significant program design and management challenges hindering VA's ability to provide meaningful and timely support to disabled veterans and their families. It is especially fitting, with the continuing deployment of our military forces to armed conflict, that we reaffirm our commitment to those who serve our nation in its times of need. Therefore, effective and efficient management of VA's disability programs is of paramount importance. In January 2003, we designated VA's disability compensation programs, as well as other federal disability programs including Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, as high-risk areas. We did this to draw attention to the need for broad-based transformation of these programs, which is critical to improving the government's performance and ensuring accountability within expected resource limits. In March 2003, we cautioned that the proposed modification of concurrent receipt provisions in the military retirement system would not only have significant implications for DOD's retirement costs but could also increase the demands placed on the VA claims processing system. This would come at a time when the system is still struggling to correct problems with quality assurance and timeliness. Moreover, we testified that it would be appropriate to consider the pursuit of more fundamental reform of the disability programs as the Congress and other policy makers consider concurrent receipt.

VA needs to modernize its disability programs. In particular, VA relies on outmoded medical and economic disability criteria in adjudicating claims for disability compensation. In addition, VA has long-standing problems providing veterans with accurate, consistent, and timely benefit decisions, although recent efforts have made important improvements in timeliness. However, complex program design features, including eligibility, have developed over many years, and solutions to the current problems will require thoughtful analysis to ensure that efficient, effective, and equitable solutions are crafted. Moreover, these solutions might need to take into account a broader perspective from other disability programs to ensure sound federal disability policies across government programs and to reduce the risks associated with the current programs.

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