Senate passes measures to help veterans

WASHINGTON—The Senate has passed a bill that would boost efforts to find veterans who aren't getting disability and other benefits they may be due and standardize the awarding of post-traumatic stress disorder payments nationwide.

The measures, spurred in part by Knight Ridder stories in 2004 and 2005, were included in a larger bill designed to improve the benefits veterans receive. Among other things, the bill, which passed the Senate Wednesday, would give totally disabled service members more time to apply for life insurance after discharge and give the Department of Veterans Affairs more flexibility to handle VA mortgages.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where similar measures have been introduced or soon will be. With the backing of veterans' groups and senators of both parties, the bill stands a good chance of passing as part of a broader package to improve veterans' benefits that will be negotiated between the two chambers.

The outreach provision would require the VA to detail its plans to identify veterans who aren't enrolled for VA benefits or services. It also would require the VA to coordinate with veterans' groups and state officials who conduct such outreach efforts.

In July 2004, Knight Ridder reported that an estimated 572,000 veterans might be missing out on VA disability-compensation payments, which range from $108 to $2,299 a month. The estimate was based on an analysis of VA survey data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Veterans are compensated for mental or physical injuries sustained during military service. But many either don't know they're eligible or are scared off by the VA's red tape.

Knight Ridder also reported that the percentage of veterans on the VA's rolls varied widely from state to state, from 16 percent in Alaska to 6 percent in Illinois, suggesting that outreach efforts by state agencies and regional VA offices may be uneven. The outreach bill, which eventually was folded into other legislation, was introduced a week after the report was published.

The section on post-traumatic stress disorder would require the VA to develop new policies to standardize the assessment of such claims, which vary widely across the country and are one of the main reasons that veterans' average disability benefits are far higher in some states than others.

A report in March, based on data released after Knight Ridder sued the agency in federal court, showed that the "rating" given veterans to indicate the severity of their mental illnesses is far higher in some regional offices than others.

In April, a bill was introduced in the House to address that issue. That legislation is pending.