The nation’s veterans disability system is severely strained and it could be strained to the point of collapse when 700,000 returning Iraq and Afghanistan war vets begin applying for help.
It is dismaying then to learn that since Congress generously relaxed the rules in 1972 veterans, often of only short-term service, are receiving lifetime benefits of $100 a month or more for sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis and genital herpes — even if they became infected on their own time, decades ago and for conduct that was often illicit.
Reporter Lisa Hoffman of Scripps Howard News Service found a South Carolina vet who served from 1955 to 1958 and caught gonorrhea about 10 times during and after his service and 47 years later was awarded $200 a month for life for gonorrhea-caused arthritis in his knee. Her report was published in Saturday’s edition of the Tribune.
The Department of Veterans Affairs either doesn’t know or won’t say how many vets are receiving disability benefits for venereal disease but Hoffman estimates that collectively they have received millions of dollars — and it’s legal. Close to 20 sexually transmitted or related conditions are compensable with VA benefits.
Congress loosened restrictions on venereal disease to encourage returning Vietnam vets to seek treatment but since then, Hoffman writes, the system “has evolved into a more generous one that does not require vets with VD or any other medical condition to demonstrate how their ailment has hurt their earning power in order to receive monthly checks,” only that their condition began while they were in military service or was aggravated by it.
Veterans groups argue rightly that the issue of questionable benefits pales next to the trouble many vets have in getting benefits clearly due to them. But public confidence in the fairness of the system, the assurance that the money is going to those who genuinely need it, is vital to the kind of support the disability system is going to require.
The Veterans Disability Benefits Commission, whose report on disability reform is due out in September, should consider whether it is fair to compensate veterans for ailments that, as Hoffman writes, don’t affect their ability to work, or are treatable, or carry only tangential connection to military service.