Nearby states play it cheap with disabled vets
December 6, 2004

BY CHERYL L. REED Staff Reporter

While Rust Belt states like Michigan, Ohio and Illinois are ranked at the bottom of the nation in federal disability pay to wounded soldiers, their neighboring Midwestern states are granting below-average payments, as well.

Last year, the average annual disability pay nationwide to wounded veterans was $8,065. But Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana all granted less.

Of those five states, Indiana ranked the worst—45 out of 52, including D.C. and Puerto Rico. Indiana's regional VA office in Indianapolis grants, on average, $6,910 per veteran—about $100 more than veterans in Illinois receive. Illinois is ranked No. 50.

Tough going

"The raters in Indianapolis seem to be a little tougher than other regional offices," said Michael, 57, of Hobart, Ind.

Michael, a wounded Vietnam veteran, didn't want to give his full name because he said he doesn't want the VA office in Indianapolis to know he lives in the state. Michael said he obtained a 100 percent disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder and a wound to his right foot in 1995 while living in California. He moved to Hobart in 1998.

"I've not moved my records because I don't want Indianapolis to screw up my disability," he said.

Better in Minnesota

Of the north Midwestern region, Minnesota pays the most to its disabled veterans: $7,872 on average per year. Missouri follows at $7,848. Wisconsin gives out $7,739, and Iowa grants $7,490 per wounded veteran each year.

For the last six years, Illinois veterans have received the lowest or near the lowest disability payments in the country.

That fact, revealed in a Chicago Sun-Times article last week, sparked Illinois politicians Friday to demand investigations into why the federal VA office in Chicago was one of the stingiest in the country.

On Saturday, Mayor Daley joined the chorus of politicians seeking a VA review, including Gov. Blagojevich and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

The federal VA spends $19.5 billion a year in disability pay to 2.4 million veterans. Only 6 percent of Illinois' veteran population of 922,000 receives any disability pay. The national average is 10 percent.

Many soldiers refuse to apply for disability because they see it as a handout, said Daniel Howell of Chicago's Paralyzed Veterans of America office.

"We have this Midwest attitude here that as long as a guy has all his fingers and toes, he's not going to apply," said Howell, a Chicago native. "In California and New York, if they are wounded, they apply."

Nine percent of New York and California veterans receive disability.

A Persian Gulf War veteran, Howell says he was reluctant to file after he was burned over 20 percent of his body in a helicopter crash. Howell waited four years before he put in a disability claim. Now he receives 70 percent disability, about $1,056 a month.

Things may be improving

For the last six years, Howell's day job has been helping other wounded veterans file claims. Although Illinois remains at the bottom of the nation in disability pay, Howell says he believes that the Chicago VA office is getting better.

"For a long time, there was a very conservative attitude among the raters," Howell said. "But over the past year and a half to two years, we've seen a huge change in the caliber of the ratings decision, which is to the benefit of the veteran."

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