Veterans Affairs nominee pledges to address benefits disparities

WASHINGTON—The man nominated to run the Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday he would work to ensure that veterans across the country are given the same treatment, regardless of where they live.

Jim Nicholson, who was nominated by President Bush to lead the massive agency that provides health care and disability payments to America's veterans, said it was a "real issue" that veterans in different states are awarded different levels of compensation. The reasons for those differences, however, are still something of a mystery.

Nicholson made the comments in testimony to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, which unanimously voted to approve his nomination. The full Senate will vote on his nomination soon, and he is expected to sail through.

If confirmed, he will replace Anthony Principi, who has served as leader of the agency since early in Bush's first term. Nicholson previously was chairman of the Republican National Committee and most recently served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

The issue of state-by-state variation stems from figures compiled by the VA that show veterans in some states getting far higher annual payments than veterans in other states. For example, while the average payment for disability compensation is $7,861, veterans in New Mexico receive an average of $10,851 but veterans in Ohio only receive an average $6,710, according to the VA's most recent annual report.

"It's a problem that has plagued the system for decades," said David Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit group that helps veterans apply for benefits. "We're certainly hopeful Secretary-designate Nicholson steps up to the plate and addresses it."

The regional differences have erupted as a significant issue in Illinois, which ranks near the bottom of the average payment lists. Chicago media, led by the Chicago Sun-Times, have reported extensively on the issue, and new Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has flagged it as a major concern.

The department's inspector general also has launched an examination of the issue.

"I think all fair-minded people recognize these kinds of gross disparities don't make sense and that not only are they unfair to those who served in the past, but they also hurt the morale of our troops," Obama said.

Knight Ridder Newspapers, in a report last summer, also highlighted such disparities, particularly the percentage of veterans in each state who are part of the disability compensation system. Across the country, a Knight Ridder analysis of VA data found, an estimated 572,000 U.S. veterans may not be receiving the compensation to which they're entitled from the federal government for disabilities suffered in the service of their country.

There was also wide variation by state in the percentage of veterans who participate in the program.

At the high end are states such as Alaska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, where 12 percent to 16 percent of veterans receive disability compensation payments. At the low end are Illinois, Iowa, Connecticut and Michigan, where 6 percent or 7 percent of veterans get compensation. The national average is 9.9 percent.

Many state governments have taken it upon themselves to find these uncompensated veterans. After Knight Ridder's story, legislation was introduced in July by Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., to require the VA to educate all veterans about the benefits due them.

In the last Congress, no action was taken on Coleman's bill. But his spokesman said Monday that the measure will be reintroduced Tuesday.

Disability payments, which now go to about 2.5 million veterans, are designed to compensate veterans who suffer physical or mental injuries while serving in the armed services.

Responding to questions from Obama, Nicholson said he was still examining the issue and was waiting for the inspector general's assessment on the topic. Veterans experts say that demographic issues, over which the VA has little control, may explain some of the variation. Another possible explanation is that VA workers may be trained differently and therefore determine a veteran's level of disability differently.

"That is something I'm asking myself," Nicholson testified. "How uniform and consistent is the training, the preparation of these adjudicators?"

If confirmed, Nicholson said it was "a high priority" to better understand the regional disparities.