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Data contradict VA's explanation on disparity in veterans' benefits

WASHINGTON—A key reason the Department of Veterans Affairs offered recently to explain the wide disparity in veterans monthly disability checks across the country is undercut by the agency's own data. The data show that on average veterans of the same war receive vastly different payments, depending on where they live.

The VA has struggled for months to explain why veterans in some states receive lower payments than those in others. In releasing a new report on the issue, the agency recently said demographic factors partly explained the state-to-state difference—saying, for example, that veterans of some wars are far more prevalent in certain states than others.

But an analysis of VA data shows that veterans of the same war get vastly different payments depending on their state. The average payment for World War II veterans, for example, goes from less than $6,000 a year to more than $13,000, depending on the state.

"While they can point to demographics for some of the problems, the real problem comes down to the amount of subjectivity that seems to be favoring veterans in some states," said Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who has been battling the VA over the low average payments to Illinois veterans.

At a news conference on May 19, VA officials said the differences partly depended on how many veterans of a certain war lived in a certain state and how much that group was paid on average across the country.

The VA pointed to World War II veterans nationwide, who get smaller checks from the agency than veterans of the Vietnam or Korean wars. So, the VA said, a state with a higher-than-average percentage of World War II vets is likely to have lower-than-average veteran payments.

"They have more World War II vets in these low ... states, and that's going to pull down your average payment," said the VA's inspector general Richard Griffin, as he announced the results of a study on the variation in VA payments. "The VA cannot control where people live."

But World War II vets in Illinois get far less than World War II vets in New Mexico, the state with the highest average payment, according to VA data. In fact, the gap between Illinois and New Mexico is far wider for World War II veterans than it is for veterans overall.

In Illinois, World War II vets bring home an average of $5,722 a year; in New Mexico, it's $13,558—or 137 percent more.

Among veterans of all time periods, the average annual check in Illinois is $6,961; in New Mexico, it's $12,004—or 72 percent more.

The same holds true for most of the other demographic categories the VA used to explain the variation from high to low states, according to Knight Ridder's analysis of the same data used by the VA's inspector general. It also holds true when looking at the cluster of states at the high end of the compensation ladder compared with those at the bottom.

The inspector general did say that several factors contribute to the overall variation, and that he couldn't pinpoint which ones were more important than others.

Beyond the demographic factors, the inspector general pointed to inconsistent decisions from office to office, particularly on cases involving a veteran's claim for post-traumatic stress disorder, as also contributing to the variations. The inspector general also said the VA's antiquated disability regulations, as well as staffing and training problems, can affect the state-to-state averages.

Further, the detailed information that shows how much veterans receive by state and by each demographic group was contained in the full text of the inspector general's 200-page report. But that information wasn't handed out at the VA's news conference on the issue, and the agency's public explanations of that data focused largely on other factors.

In its news conference, the VA repeatedly pointed to demographic factors as playing a role in the wide variation in disability checks. Ticking off a list of demographic factors, Griffin said that, "each one of these elements bodes for a higher average amount in the high-cluster states based on the distribution of veterans living in those states."

As an example, the inspector general's report pointed out that Vietnam veterans on average bring home bigger checks than those from World War II—and that "states with a high percentage of Vietnam veterans and a low percentage of World War II veterans have higher average compensation payments."

But World War II vets in New Mexico not only get more money than World War II vets in Illinois—they also get more money than Vietnam vets in Illinois. It suggests that the wide differences aren't due to what percentage of World War II vets live in a particular state but how the VA officials in those states decided claims.

The VA offered several other examples of what it called demographic factors that helped explain the variation, including: the percentage of veterans in a state represented by specialized veteran-service officers; the percentage of veterans in a state who were enlisted—not officers; and the percentage of veterans in a state who are retired from career military service.

In each of those cases, Knight Ridder found, veterans in the high-paying states get more than their peers in the low-paying states, even within the specific groups.

Disabled veterans are entitled to payments that range from $1,296 to $27,588. Regional offices in each state decide the veterans' claims, which stem from physical and mental injuries incurred during military service.

Gerald Grahe, the VA's deputy assistant inspector general for auditing, said there's still a need for a more detailed statistical analysis of all the factors at play as the VA tries to explain the wide variance in its payments. The inspector general recommended, and the VA agreed, to undertake such an analysis.

About the study just released, Grahe said: "There just was not time to do the more detailed analysis we would have liked to do."

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EDITORS: This listing accompanies VETERANS. It is ranked in order for the average payment for all veterans with New Mexico being No. 1 and Illinois at 50th.

The first listing is the state, the second is the average disability payment per year for all veterans, the third is for World War II veterans in that state and the fourth listing is the average disability payment for Vietnam veterans in that state.

U.S. Average, $8,378, $7,798, $10,930

New Mexico, 12,004, 13,558, 15,033

Maine, 11,626, 11,275, 14,983

Arkansas, 10,968, 10,782, 13,533

West Virginia, 10,866, 9,570, 13,874

Oklahoma, 10,697, 12,349, 13,789

Oregon, 10,277, 9,646, 12,861

Vermont, 9,649, 8,096, 12,743

Arizona, 9,308, 10,379, 11,829

North Carolina, 9,281, 9,223, 12,557

Kentucky, 9,194, 8,833, 12,017

Louisiana, 9,114, 8,638, 11,994

Mississippi, 8,949, 10,029, 10,764

Texas, 8,928, 9,670, 11,482

Rhode Island, 8,893, 7,985, 11,348

Montana, 8,871, 8,366, 11,574

Nevada, 8,771, 11,027, 10,892

Tennessee, 8,698, 9,152, 11,551

Florida, 8,658, 9,869, 10,957

Nebraska, 8,623, 9,255, 10,427

Idaho, 8,604, 8,235, 11,078

South Dakota, 8,548, 9,156, 10,818

Washington, 8,531, 9,008, 11,576

Hawaii, 8,491, 8,570, 11,637

South Carolina, 8,459, 9,070, 11,232

Minnesota, 8,321, 7,455, 10,365

Wisconsin, 8,297, 7,630, 10,309

Missouri, 8,232, 8,037, 10,323

New Hampshire, 8,168, 8,651, 9,902

Alabama, 8,165, 8,250, 10,462

North Dakota, 8,143, 7,717, 10,413

Alaska, 8,138, 7,937, 10,536

California, 8,099, 7,688, 10,831

Maryland, 7,944, 7,222, 10,405

Colorado, 7,944, 7,774, 10,675

Utah, 7,906, 6,976, 10,173

Pennsylvania, 7,898, 6,501, 10,313

Iowa, 7,797, 7,314, 9,538

Wyoming, 7,778, 7,945, 9,599

Georgia, 7,775, 8,056, 10,599

Virginia, 7,716, 8,464, 10,120

Kansas, 7,579, 7,172, 10,130

Massachusetts, 7,529, 6,712, 10,018

Delaware, 7,453, 6,344, 9,579

New York, 7,348, 5,943, 9,690

Indiana, 7,287, 6,938, 8,982

Michigan, 7,241, 6,070, 9,231

Connecticut, 7,204, 5,342, 9,896

Ohio, 7,039, 6,162, 8,890

New Jersey, 7,028, 5,859, 9,311

Illinois, 6,961, 5,722, 9,459

Source: Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General; data indicate the averages for veterans on the disability compensation rolls as of fiscal 2004.

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