STATEMENT OF LARRY E. CRIAG
CHAIRMAN, SENATE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
The Rising Number of Disabled Veterans Deemed Unemployable: Is the System Failing?
A closer look at VA's Individual Unemployability Benefit
OCTOBER 27, 2005
Good afternoon ladies and gentleman. Welcome to this hearing of the Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Today the Committee will take a closer look at what I would consider a ?benefit of last resort.? I am of course speaking about VA's ?individual unemployability,? or ?I-U,? benefit.
With today's modern technologies, individuals with disabilities have more opportunities than ever before to become productive members of society. I want to hear what VA is doing to make sure these opportunities are made available to the brave men and women who have served our country in uniform. This is not only good for the mental health and long-term financial benefit of our veterans, but for America's own socio-economic vitality.
We know that employment has salutary effects on our physical and mental health, and that it improves our self-esteem. In a brochure published by the National Mental Health Association, individuals with mental illness are encouraged to pursue employment opportunities on their path to recovery. The brochure reads, ?people who have recovered say that meaningful work, including volunteer jobs, is one of the biggest aids to their getting and staying well.? Even spiritual leaders recognize the virtues of employment. John Paul II wrote that, ?work is a good thing for man . . . something worthy . . . something that corresponds to man's dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it.?
With that understanding of what employment means to our health and sense of self-worth, the chart behind me presents a worrisome trend. As you can see, there has been an alarming increase in the number of veterans deemed unemployable by VA -- a 107% increase between 1999 and 2004. Those veterans are in receipt of a benefit that is based, in essence, on an undesirable life circumstance, a life circumstance that has no positive effect on health of mind, body, or soul. As I said at the outset, any benefit based on such a life circumstance should rightly be described as a benefit of last resort. While the benefit may certainly be appropriate for some, the presumption must be that every individual with disabilities can overcome barriers to employment. A positive, employment-oriented attitude towards veterans with disabilities must be VA's focus, and the eligibility assessment for IU should reflect that attitude.
The increase in IU beneficiaries presents the Committee with several questions: Does VA use its vast health and vocational rehabilitation resources to help veterans with disabilities obtain jobs and to avoid an unemployability label? If IU is granted, are veterans abandoned in that status, or does VA conduct appropriate follow-up? Does this benefit do a disservice to veterans by incentivizing unemployment?
Fundamental to our inquiry is to establish an understanding of what the purpose of IU is and the standard VA uses in determining eligibility for it. One of the stunning things I learned in preparation for this hearing is the age demographic of IU beneficiaries. As you can see from the charts behind me, a fair number of IU recipients are well beyond traditional retirement ages. These charts beg the question: Why is a benefit based on unemployability being paid to individuals who, on account of age, would likely not be looking for work anyway?
Fortunately, we are joined this afternoon by witnesses who can help us find some answers to all of these questions. On our first panel we are joined by the Honorable Daniel Cooper, VA Under Secretary for Benefits. He is accompanied by Ms. Renee Syzbala, Director of the Compensation and Pension service; Mrs. Judith Caden, Director of the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service; and Dr. Patrick Joyce, Chief of Occupational Health at the Washington VA Medical Center.
On our second panel we are joined by Mr. Rick Surratt, Deputy National Legislative Director of the Disabled American Veterans; and Ms. Cynthia Bascetta, Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security at the Government Accountability Office.
Welcome to all of you and thank you for appearing here this afternoon. I now turn it over to Senator Akaka for any opening comments he may have. Senator Akaka?
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