Cuts to VA Individual Unemployability Avoided, For Now

June 16, 2017

This week, VA Secretary David Shulkin testified before Congress, saying he did not intend to pursue the administration's proposal to terminate some disability benefits based on individual unemployability (IU) ratings. 

His staff, however, maintains that overhauls to IU benefits are still necessary.

In a Thursday meeting with veterans service organizations (VSOs), including MOAA, the VA's Assistant Director of Procedures for Compensation Service, Laurine Carson, said “everybody agrees” the VA's IU system needs to be fixed, but the change is almost certain not to happen, “based on petitions being signed.”  

Her statement is a reference to the efforts of organizations like MOAA, whose members have contacted their elected officials on the proposal. 

According to Carson, the VA would instead be pursuing legislative proposals to fix the program.  

Officials at the VA said they have not yet completed collecting and analyzing data relevant to IU - something MOAA mentioned in our last article on this topic. The study is still scheduled to conclude in September, according to Carson. 

When asked whether the report would include data reflecting the secondary costs to the VA of ending IU benefits for older veterans - such as more veterans applying for increased ratings claims or veterans needing assistance to prevent homelessness -. Carson said information would not be included in the report and would be left to a future legislative proposal process to calculate.

It appears the VA has a solution looking for a problem. VA officials said the problem they are trying to fix is IU “no longer compensates those it was intended to be for, which are those with service-connected disabilities who couldn't perform physical labor that the diagnostic codes in the 1930s did not adequately compensate for.” 

VA officials referenced a 2015 Government Accountability Office report saying the IU program was ripe for abuse, citing isolated examples of veterans receiving IU benefits and still working. 

The report identified potential ways the VA could avoid alleged “double dipping,” including cross-checking a veteran's income with other government agencies. 

In a 2015 hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, VA officials said it would start requesting information from the Social Security Administration for veterans receiving IU benefits to determine their income level as a way to prevent abuse. 

However, this week the VA admitted it has not started to do so. Instead, the agency will look to the IRS for income information about veterans receiving IU. 

MOAA's Director of Government Relations for Veterans Benefits, Lt. Col. Aniela Szymanski, USMCR, is not convinced the IU program needs to be overhauled. 

“I think the VA's IU benefit is doing exactly what it was intended to do: provide a total disability rating for those whose service connected disabilities render them unable to maintain gainful employment,” says Szymanski. “The VA's assertion that the system is 'broken' is based on incomplete data and anecdotal stories of isolated incidents.” 

Carson has committed to maintaining an open discussion on this topic and MOAA will continue to remain engaged with the VA to ensure the interests of our veterans are heard.

“The importance of VSOs in this context cannot be overstated because while the VA is looking at data, VSOs are looking at practical impacts and realistic solutions,” says Szymanski.

So, while the VA might have lost the first round of this battle, it intends to keep the IU program in its crosshairs and will continue to pursue changes to the benefit.

MOAA will remain engaged with the VA to find solutions that keep faith with veterans and their families.

For additional information on this week's VA hearings, click here to read Tom Philpott's Military Update.


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