By Tom Philpott
Complaints from veterans and from a high-profile commission that the services routinely were "low-balling" disability ratings for military members spurred Congress to take action last year.
Among other things it ordered the Department of Defense to create a special board to review disability ratings of 20 percent or less given to members who separated since Sept. 11, 2001. Thousands of veterans had higher ratings and additional benefits at stake from any fresh review.
But the new Physical Disability Board of Review (PDBR), which began accepting applications last month, isn’t going to do what some in Congress and many veterans hoped that it would. It will not be reassessing ratings for mental and physical conditions from applicants based solely on the more liberal criteria used by raters at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Veterans Administration Schedule for Ratings Disabilities, or VASRD, will only be used to its full effect in reviewing lower disability ratings awarded on or after Jan. 28, 2008.
In reviewing earlier disability ratings, back through 9/11, the PDBR will determine if the service branch had followed its own guidelines for rating disabilities at the time of a veteran’s separation.
The problem with that, say critics, is that, for some health conditions, service guidelines had watered down or ignored the VASRD, creating inequities across services and lower ratings for many members, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder, migraine headaches and other conditions. Still, the board’s legal staff says that is all that the law requires.
"In adjudicating cases, the PDBR will assume service-specific policies to be authorized interpretations of the VASRD," explained Victor R. Donovan, legal advisor to the Air Force Review Boards Agency, which is tasked to run the PDBR from its headquarters at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Michael Parker, an expert on disability ratings and an advocate for disabled veterans, elicited that agency position with a lengthy letter and detailed questions seeking "absolute clarity" on the criteria the board will be using on thousands of veterans’ applications.
Parker said he is stunned by the position being taken by Department of Defense lawyers. In effect, he said, it will neutralize what Congress has tried to accomplish for veterans now queuing up for rating reconsideration.
Mike Hayden, a veterans’ benefits expert with the Military Officers Association of America, also is frustrated at the PDBR’s approach.
"We thought the intent of this board was to look at these low-balled ratings to see if they need to be elevated," said Hayden.
PDBR officials declined comment on short notice referring to the board’s website for details: http://www.health.mil/Pages/Page.aspx?ID=19.