Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The VD Benefit

I somehow missed this story, which ran five days ago in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other Scripps-Howard newspapers. But the article deserves wide attention, because it's another example of supposedly good intentions gone amok, with the American taxpayer (again) footing the bill.

According to Scripps-Howard reporter Lisa Hoffman, thousands of veterans are collecting monthly disability payments for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) they contracted while in uniform. Under a little-known law enacted 30 years ago, veterans are entitled to benefits for STDs contracted (or simply aggravated) in the service, even if they became infected during their off-duty time.

The number of former military personnel who receive disability payments for STDs is unclear; the Veterans Administration has refused to divulge that information. But a review of some 60,000 cases by Scripps-Howard suggests that thousands of veterans have receive benefits--totaling millions of dollars--over the past three decades. Most of the payments are rather small (typically $100-$350 a month). But the idea of paying veterans for STDs contracted on their own time--and often from prostitutes--rankles some lawmakers, including Idaho Senator Larry Craig:

We need to rethink whether taxpayers should support cash compensation payments for disabilities that are, without doubt, the result of one's own personal, voluntary behavior. Sexually transmitted diseases fall into that category, in my mind," said Craig, an Idaho Republican.

A spokesman for a veterans' group suggested that some of the veterans receiving STD disability payments might have been victims of rape or incest, or former prisoners of war. I'm guessing that's a very small minority among the recipients; in fact, I'd wager that most of them fit the profile of two beneficiaries cited by Scripps-Howard. In each case, the veterans contracted an STD during their off-duty time, applied for disability (in one case, almost 30 years later), and they now receive a monthly check:

Among those receiving VD disability payments is a Texas veteran of a four-year hitch in the mid-1980s, who convinced the Board of Veterans' Appeals that he deserved to be considered 30 percent disabled -- worth $350 a month now -- because his genital warts left him seriously depressed.

Another veteran, this one from Wisconsin, waited 30 years before applying for benefits for the residual effects of gonorrhea he acknowledged he contracted from a prostitute during his basic training at Fort Polk, La., in 1972.

This former soldier, who mustered out of the Army in 1975, said he continued to suffer from recurring gonorrhea-related urethritis when he sought benefits in 1996. Eventually, the appeals board deemed him 10 percent disabled, and thus eligible for a monthly check of about $100 for the rest of his life.

How did the government get in the business of paying disability benefits to veterans with STDs? In 1972, Congress changed long-standing military regulations, which described venereal diseases as "willful misconduct," and even prescribed punishment for troops who contracted STDs. By changing the regulations, Congress hoped to eliminate the "stigma" associated with those diseases, and encourage Vietnam-era veterans to seek treatment. The "disability" benefit was just one more "incentive" offered by lawmakers. Today, the disability benefit covers more than 20 STDs or related conditions.

As a retired officer (and a taxpayer), it's galling to think of the money and resources being wasted on these payments, particularly as veterans of the GWOT work their way through the bureaucratic maze, attempting to obtain benefits for combat-related disabilities. The "VD check" is also another example of the VA's woefully inconsistent rulings in disability and benefit cases, an area I know a little something about.

During my retirement physical in 2001, the doctor noted that I had at least a 15% hearing loss, the result of listening of high-frequency (HF) radios for hours at a stretch during my aircrew days. He suggested that I have the VA evaluate my records, for a potential disability determination. So, I submitted my records for review and sat through an audiology appointment. A few months later, I received a form letter from the VA, informing me that the condition was not serious enough to be considered a disability. Fair enough--I certainly wasn't expecting a check for a slight hearing loss.

In hindsight, it's obvious that I set my standards too high. Following the VA's logic, all those hours devoted to learning my job, earning a master's degree and completing professional military education (PME) courses would have been better spent consorting with hookers, or joining the local "swingers" club. With my STD credentials in order, I could then receive "benefits" for a past bout of gonorrhea, or prolonged embarrassment over a case of genital warts.

While this blog remains an ardent supporter of the military (and veteran's rights), we also understand that not all service-related injuries and illnesses are worthy of government benefits. After reading the Scripps-Howard report, I can think of about 20 ailments and related conditions that should be removed from the list--accompanied by a corresponding elimination of those monthly "disability" payments.

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