Burr bill would alter vet disability ratings
Barbara Barrett, Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Richard Burr introduced legislation Thursday to change the ratings disability system for veterans. The measure could affect the more than 700,000 veterans in North Carolina, as well as the soldiers and Marines returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Burr, the top Republican on the Senate veteran affairs committee, said he wants to improve the system which hasn't been changed substantially in half a century.

"Now's the time for us to tackle this," said Burr, North Carolina's junior senator. "We understand today's soldiers have totally different expectations."

Veterans service organizations, though, have held off on endorsing his bill. And Democratic leaders on the veteran affairs committees in Congress say they want to learn more about what's needed before making changes to the system.

Similar legislation was introduced Thursday by U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, the top Republican on the House veteran affairs committee.

Veterans now must undergo disability ratings through the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs -- a process that the lawmakers said often results in disparate ratings and confusion for veterans.

Burr and Buyer want to remove the defense department from the ratings system -- except for determining whether a soldier or Marine is fit to serve.

The pair also want to add disability payments to help troops make the transition from active duty to veteran status, and to compensate for quality of life issues.

"Consider someone who's had an amputation," Buyer said. "How does that change their life? When they get up in the morning, what does it take for them to get to the restroom? What does it take to get to work?"

Buyer said the bill could initially cost the federal government more money, but Burr said he hopes to see long-term savings.

The veteran affairs agency is conducting a study on updating the system to include quality of life issues. The bills require the agency to develop a new system on the basis of the results of that study.

Under their bills, veterans in the current system could choose whether to move to the new system or not. The new system would apply to all new veterans.

"Every day this is not passed, the next person that goes into the system goes into an antiquated system," Burr said.

bbarrett@mcclatchydc.com or (202) 383-0012