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Consumer Reports


Vets' lack of compensation for on-the-job injuries roils Congress

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) B.E. "Lyn" Cushing soldiered on for 24 years in the Air Force, through conditions that would make Uncle Sam cringe.

She worked in a tin building with water on the floor. At a base in Greenland, where temperatures plunged to 76 below, she dodged rabid Arctic foxes and wore regular combat boots because there were no insulated boots her size. She toiled in a mine shaft so cold, she wore her overcoat all day.

In Maine, the scent of benzene from a polluted field would waft into her office.

At 45, suffering from a range of illnesses triggered by the poor conditions, Cushing was ruled permanently and totally disabled.

Cushing thought she would get her pension, plus disability pay. But she was in for a shock.

Like more than 550,000 other military retirees, Cushing is trapped by a Civil War-era law that bars her from receiving a full pension and disability pay. In effect, it means the disabled retirees get nothing extra from the federal government to compensate them for on-the-job injuries.

Known among veterans by the jargon "concurrent receipts," the law hits pocketbooks hard: The $2,274 in disability payments Cushing gets each month is deducted from her own pension.

In the end, that leaves her with the same amount she would have received if she had retired healthy after 24 years and been able to embark on a second lucrative career.

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But Cushing, now 57 and living in a Titusville, Fla., condominium, is unable to work. She must use a walker because of inner-ear problems. She has fibromyalgia, a painful disease akin to arthritis of the muscles. And she has chronic fatigue syndrome so severe she eats with plastic utensils because she doesn't have the energy to lift a metal fork.

"The cumulative effects of all my adverse conditions came to roost," she said.

And now Cushing and the others are making their anger known to Congress.

The military retirees are growing increasingly vocal about demanding a change in the law they say robs them of fair compensation for the health they lost while serving their country.

Although 371 members of the House agree the retirees are getting a raw deal, they have not yet figured out a way to pay the 10-year, $58 billion tab to fix the problem.

One proposal enraged veterans groups because it would have taken away disability and health benefits from thousands of future vets, including many of those now serving in Iraq.

The issue will come to a head this month as lawmakers struggle behind closed doors to balance the cost of the fix with what veterans and congressmen alike describe as doing the right thing.

One of the attractions of the military is being able to retire with a full pension after 20 years of service, leaving plenty of time for a second career.

"It's very disappointing to follow all the rules, serve the country for 20 years or more and then have your own government cheat you out of money that was promised to you," said Cushing, who, when she feels strong enough, spends time combing the Internet and calling anyone who might be able to rally support for her cause.

But critics say veterans were never promised both paychecks_and the law preventing double-dipping has been around for more than a century.

Terry Jemison, spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the White House opposes a measure because of long-standing opposition to government employees getting disability and pension pay for the same years of service.

Powerful veterans' groups have presented a united front in demanding a fix. Democrats in Congress have seized on the issue, noting that Republican leaders are blocking it.

Florida's Republican lawmakers signed on to a bill offering the benefits, which was sponsored by Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor. But when House GOP leaders refused to let the measure move forward, the Florida Republicans refused to publicly challenge their bosses by forcing a vote.

"There's a way to accomplish things, but poking your finger in the eye of your leadership isn't one of them," said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo.

He and Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, say they are working behind the scenes to pressure House leaders to do right by the veterans. Feeney said he has pointed out that many Republicans with difficult re-election races in 2004 had promised to get it done.

But Cushing has little patience for politicking and what she sees as GOP leaders' heavy-handed tactics on rank-and-file lawmakers.

"It's wrong for them to be pressured that way so they'll represent the White House instead of houses in their own district," she said.

The Bush administration says the sticking point is finding money to fix the problem.

"That money would have to come out of training, equipment, barracks for the troops, and so I think you have to set priorities once again," Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi said earlier this year. "The well has a bottom."

Cushing's well, too, has a bottom. She must hire a handyman to do ordinary tasks a healthy person would handle. Congress, she said, finds money for tax cuts and Iraqi reconstruction, but not veterans.

"It's not a lack of money," she said. "It's a lack of spending priority."

When House Republicans proposed fixing the disability issue by cutting benefits to future veterans, it was met with outrage.

Principi testified last week that the idea was rash and needed much more study. Nearly two-thirds of future veterans might have fewer benefits under the proposal, VA staff said.

Those injured in combat still would receive VA disability checks and health care. But many not injured in battle might not be eligible for disability benefits. The proposal enraged Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

At a hearing Specter convened, veterans rattled off a list of situations in which veterans would not get disability benefits: a person whose barracks was bombed as he slept off-duty; a paratrooper whose knees gave out years after discharge; a soldier injured when a mess hall collapsed; someone who developed chronic troubles years after being exposed to biological weapons.

"It will become our most embarrassing national disgrace," said Rick Surratt, deputy legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans.

"One injustice should not replace another," said Richard Jones, legislative director of AMVETS.

Critics have said the veterans disability system needs to be reformed because some people get benefits for injuries they would have gotten with age anyway.

"There are abuses in the system," said Brown-Waite, who is pushing for the disability payments but not sure whether she would support cutting benefits for future veterans whose injuries are not combat-related.

Current veterans would not be affected if the provision tying benefits to combat injuries passes, which many people say is unlikely because of opposition from the White House, Specter and others.

If it does, future veterans whose injuries develop not in combat, but because of their jobs, as Cushing's did, would pay the cost. "I believe my problems, even though I wasn't shot with a bullet or run over by a tank, are directly service-related," Cushing said. "I should be compensated by the government for my lost ability to earn an income."

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