VA Disability Benefits:

Routine Monitoring of Disability Decisions Could Improve Consistency

GAO-06-120T: Published: Oct 20, 2005. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 2005.

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The House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs asked GAO to discuss its work on the consistency of disability compensation claims decisions of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). GAO has reported wide state-to-state variations in average compensation payments per disabled veteran, raising questions about decisional consistency. In 2003, GAO designated VA's disability programs, along with other federal disability programs, as high risk, in part because of concerns about decisional consistency. Illustrating this issue, GAO reported that inadequate information from VA medical centers on joint and spine impairments contributed to inconsistent regional office disability decisions.

GAO's November 2004 report explained that adjudicators in the Department of Veterans Affairs often must use judgment in making disability compensation claims decisions. As a result, it is crucial for VA to have a system for routinely identifying the effect of judgment on decisional variations among its 57 regional offices to determine if the variations are reasonable and, if not, how to correct them. In 2002, GAO reported that state-to-state variations of as much as 63 percent in average compensation payments per disabled veteran indicated potential inconsistency. The nature of the criteria that adjudicators must apply in evaluating the degree of impairment due to mental disorders provides an example of the extent of judgment required. GAO's October 2005 report on decisions for joint and spine disabilities showed one important way to improve consistency. Specifically, regional offices often rely on VA's 157 medical centers to examine claimants and provide medical information needed to decide the claims. However, VA has found inconsistency among its medical centers in the adequacy of their joint and spine disability exam reports that regional offices need to decide these claims. As of May 2005, the percentage of exam reports containing the required information varied across the medical centers from a low of 57 percent to a high of 92 percent. This could adversely affect the consistency of disability claims decisions involving joint and spine impairments. Although VA has made substantial progress, more remains to be done to improve the level of consistency in the disability exam reports.

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