Daniel Gade and Daniel Huang’s recently released book “Wounding Warriors: How Bad Policy Is Making Veterans Sicker and Poorer” can be summed in one simple sentence: Veterans respond to incentives, just like every human on this planet.
The book addresses the veterans benefit system, which is managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. This is a topic that Gade knows well—he is a disabled veteran himself who navigated the system to successful reintegration. He even credits his own experiences at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as the origin of the book.
The authors’ jarring description of the veterans’ benefit system is simple: “Veterans are paid to be sick, and paid more the sicker or more disabled they can show themselves to be.”
The authors reached that conclusion by evaluating the results of the system created for our nation’s veterans. The book explains, “As a percentage, more veterans today are compensated for disabilities than ever before in the [Department of Veterans Affairs’] history.”
They said the number of veterans receiving disability benefits has nearly doubled while the veteran population has decreased by one-third.
The system compensates disabled veterans with a monthly payment that increases as their level of disability increases on a scale that ranges from 10% to 100%. The monthly payments start at $144.14 for a 10% disability and reach up to $3,731.90 for a 100% disabled veteran with multiple dependents.
There is a substantial jump in the monthly payments from a 90% to a 100% disability. For instance, for a veteran with no dependents, the payments go from $1,887.18 to $3,146.42 per month.
Thus, many veterans view the 100% disability rate as the ultimate prize, a point that is highlighted throughout the book. There are situations in which disabilities will require permanent financial support, but that should not be the default answer, especially not for conditions that are usually treatable like post-traumatic stress disorder.
This financial carrot dangling at the end of a disability rating, as Gade and Huang explain, has driven veterans to seek increased disability ratings.
Disabled veterans do deserve the country’s assistance in their journey back toward reintegration in society, which is why the authors also discuss the two different models for understanding and managing disabilities.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ system was designed in the aftermath of World War I under a medical model that assumes that any impairment or diagnosis equates to a disability, even if that impairment can be mitigated or corrected.
Gade and Huang state, “Under this medical model, the purpose of the disability system is reduced to providing benefits, rather than facilitating a return to functionality.”
A second model—the social model—considers factors beyond the physical limitations and how that person can adapt to their new situation. It emerged with the advances of medicine and society’s capacity of accommodating individuals with disabilities.
This is especially relevant in an economy that is more reliant on what individuals can produce with their minds rather than with their limbs.
“Serious conditions by themselves no longer equate to permanent disablement and resignation. Far more people with disabilities today—even serious ones—are able to hold meaningful, sustainable work,” Gade and Huang explain.
This model is showcased in events, including the Paralympic Games and the Warrior Games, a multisport event for wounded, injured, or ill service personnel and veterans organized by the Department of Defense.
At its core, “Wounding Warriors” describes the veterans benefit system by sharing multiple vignettes of different veterans transitioning out of military service and back into civilian life. Each veteran takes a different path after they leave service and through their interactions with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Each story highlights the role that their choice and support systems played in their transition out of the military.
One of the veterans has a very insightful observation about the current system that highlights how disability is seen at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The veteran asks, “What kind of a system would do that—spend hours poring over a patient’s ailments, diagnosing the patient, and then have nothing to offer when it comes to fixing the patient’s problems?”
Gade and Huang make a compelling case that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ disability system should be in the business of helping veterans reintegrate into society, regardless of their disabilities, rather than merely paying them to stay on the sidelines.
Policymakers that are interested in improving veterans’ lives should pay close attention to this book’s stories. The stories are compelling and do serve a fair portrait of the unintended consequences of the current benefits system.
“Wounding Warriors” should be a call for all of us to demand better for our fellow Americans.
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