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Why Is Tammy Duckworth's Disability Rating So Low?

The VA still can't calculate the costs soldiers pay for their wounds.
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Duckworth being sworn in as Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, by Judge John J. Farley with her husband Bryan Bowlsbey beside her. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Duckworth being sworn in as Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, by Judge John J. Farley with her husband Bryan Bowlsbey beside her. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

This video of Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) shaming an apparent Veterans Affairs benefit fraudster has become today's Thing That Is Making The Internet Explode. A General Accounting Office study explains some of the outrage on display.

Here's the story. That hangdog fellow Duckworth's lambasting during the hearing, Braulio Castillo, claims he hurt his foot, sorta, playing football at a military academy nearly three decades ago. That earned him a 30 percent disability rating. That means he's 30 percent disabled. The percentage determines his access to benefits for wounded military personnel. One of the benefits he's availed himself of, for some 30 years, is preferential access to lucrative government contracts for his company. These set-aside programs are designed to help wounded veterans, or any veterans, build businesses.

Duckworth notes that she has a lower VA disability rating of 20 percent, despite having had both her legs blown off and losing significant use of her right arm, when her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down. Before her political career, Duckworth was one of the military's first woman to serve as a front line helicopter combat pilot. She was shot down in Iraq in 2004.

How did Duckworth's terrible injuries—she was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade—justify a lower VA disability benefit than Castillo's old football knock? Well, the GAO has looked into how the VA assigns disability ratings several times over the past few decades, most recently late last year. It found the system to be pretty much a disaster, which is significant in a country where 2.4 million people have served in conflicts over the past decade-plus.

Duckworth notes that the average wait for a disabled soldier to get a VA review of his or her injury is nearly nine months. (Think about that: You can create an entirely new human being, from scratch, in the time it takes the VA to decide how an existing person's life is affected by an obvious injury, such as the loss of both legs in a helicopter crash.) As long ago as 1988, the GAO looked into the matter, and found that the disability assessment system hadn't been broadly updated since 1945. Which worked out about as well as you'd figure:

VA, military, and private physicians reviewing the schedule identified examples of outdated terminology, poorly defined impairments, and common medical conditions missing from the schedule; and VA rating specialists cited concerns about their ability to accurately and uniformly rate disabilities with the schedule, since it used diagnostic codes which did not distinguish between degrees of severity and did not list all medical conditions identified in medical examination reports.

What sort of conditions might have shown up in a medical chart after 1945 but not before? Anything they'd invented by the time of the Vietnam war, say. Helicopters, for example. Or Agent Orange.

Fast forward to last November, when the GAO takes another of its periodic looks at the persistent problem. By now, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have lasted longer than WWII. The GAO finds we still can't quite figure out how to define a wounded soldier's injuries. In a report titled, upsettingly, "VA Disability Compensation: Actions Needed to Address Hurdles Facing Program Modernization," the government analysis of its own program finds that the VA hasn't yet figured out how it defines "disability" in terms of a person's ability to earn a living:

In recognition of medical advances and current research on disability, VA is considering revising its criteria to reflect a more modern view of disability that gives greater consideration to a veteran’s ability to function with a service-connected disability. According to VA officials, a common theme emerging from the workgroups is the need to shift from the current symptom-based rating criteria to one that incorporates a veteran’s ability to function in the workplace.

Also that it needs to figure out what people earn, to decide what a disability costs them in losses:

VA ... is experiencing delays because it has had difficulty obtaining the data it needs to study earnings loss. Specifically, to conduct these studies, VA needs earnings data from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), among other data sources, as well as VA data on veterans with service-connected disabilities.

They're also considering using "color photographs" for defining dermatological injuries. (Read: burns.) Considering it.

And that, perhaps, is part of why Duckworth's injuries could get rated less financially limiting than Castillo's. On the other hand, maybe the VA is right: despite her wounds, she's in Congress, and he's in deep.