It’s time to rethink a veteran disability system that “incentivizes disability,”Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said during a Friday forum in Washington, the same day President Trump signed new VA accountability legislation.

“Our current disability system that is designed from 50, 60 or 70 years ago….. I would suggest it’s not sustainable and it may not be achieving the results of well-being for our veterans,” Shulkin said at an event organized by the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative.
“Our system incentivizes disability, when our system should be incentivizing health and well-being.” …
 …Shulkin made the comments in response to a question about whether the system should be re-evaluated. Potential new offerings could include wellness programs, rather than simply monthly compensation payments. Disability compensation is a monthly tax-free benefit paid to veterans who are determined to be at least 10 percent disabled because of injuries or diseases that happened during or were aggravated by military service.
“I do believe we need to begin to start having a discussion and a dialogue. Not so much about withdrawing our commitment,” Shulkin said, but about how to make the system better to improve outcomes for veterans.

According to the VA budget documents, there are about 5.5 million veterans and survivors who will receive disability compensation or pension benefits in 2018 — about 180,000 more than there were in 2017. The budget proposal includes a request for nearly $87 billion for disability compensation and pension benefits; $86 billion was budgeted for fiscal 2017.

 He acknowledged that the discussion will be a difficult one, “because this is one that I worry, if not done well, could become politicized.”
This is probably the biggest third rail of American politics. I mean, you thought privatizing social security brought out the howling mobs, that ain’t shit to touching veteran’s disability payments. But rather than just screaming at the very idea of updating the VA disability payment system, there should absolutely be a dialogue at the minimum. The disability system is a necessary program, but one that is certainly open to massive fraud, waste, and abuse, and it should be studied honestly and frankly.
(Full disclosure: I am one of those veterans who receives a small check every month when I was medically retired. If I had my way, I’d still be serving my country, but it came to a point where it was not up to me anymore, and once they made the decision, the payments came with it.)
The first thing the average civilian thinks when “Veterans’ Disability Compensation” is discussed is probably conjuring up visuals of guys with missing legs and shit. Now, one way to perhaps reverse the massive growth in this particular area would be to halt sending Americans overseas to go fight in stupid wars that last decades with no end in sight, but no one seems to be bringing that up as a possibility. However, I would hazard a guess that the majority of disability compensation is often awarded for non-combat reasons.
And this makes sense. Even if you were never blown up in combat, years of special operations and infantry training in particular takes a toll. Knees, shoulders, and backs undergo extreme stresses that turns virile 18-year-olds into half-crippled 40-year-olds. And you don’t have to even be in a combat MOS to have these longer-term injuries. Aircraft maintainers fall off ladders, admin assistants get carpal tunnel syndrome, and Navy aircraft carrier crewmen suffer hearing loss. All of these nagging injuries add up.
But that is not to say that there are not veterans that are milking the system, particularly when it comes to that elephant in the room, PTSD. I have personally heard veterans discussing the proper terminology to use to try and get a 100% PTSD disability rating from the VA. I have personally met veterans, now gainfully employed, with 100% PTSD ratings that never even left bases in the Middle East. For instance, on one contract I worked recently, one of the chefs bragged about the 100% PTSD rating that they had received. This person had not only never been in a combat MOS, they had never even gone outside the base overseas while in the military. I have seen this same story numerous times. There is an entire culture of lawyers that go into practice solely to aid people in getting the most money possible for dubious PTSD claims. But how do you fight that, if you’re the VA? It’s not like they can get into people’s heads and know they are lying.
This has been an uphill battle for a while. The New York Times had a fascinating profile on one former officer who has been urging changes to disability payments for a while now. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gade, himself an amputee from combat in Iraq, is now a public policy professor at West Point. Gade believes that (similar to conservative claims about welfare payments,) disability payments rob people of the drive to seek gainful employment:

As he paced back and forth in front of the soldiers, some of them leaning on crutches, Colonel Gade said that too many veterans become financially dependent on those monthly checks, choose not to find jobs and lose the sense of identity and self-worth that can come from work.

“People who stay home because they are getting paid enough to get by on disability are worse off,” he said. “They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to live alone. You’ve seen these guys. And the system is driving you to become one of them, if you are not careful.”

He is far from the only one veteran raising these concerns. In that same NY Times article, another veteran makes the case that the VA itself sometimes actually encourages veterans to see themselves as victims:

“When vets come home from war they are going through a tremendous change in identity,” said Eric Greitens, a former member of the Navy SEALs and founder of The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that encourages veterans to volunteer in their communities. “Then the V.A., and others, encourage them to view themselves as disabled. We meet a number of veterans who see themselves as charity cases and are not sure anymore what they have to contribute.”

Further, from a financial standpoint, sometimes veterans find themselves in a situation where it makes more sense to press for disability than to seek outside employment. As Lt. Colonel Gade notes in one example:

He points in particular to a federal program known as Individual Unemployability, for which veterans become eligible when the government gives them a rating of 60 percent disabled or more. The program pays them as if they are 100 percent disabled, as long as they can show their disabilities keep them from maintaining “substantially gainful employment.”