CEDAR RAPIDS — Jay Kaiser first noticed himself acting “goofy,” as he puts it, in 2001.
After seeking help he realized he suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Two years later the Department of Veterans Affairs declared him unfit to work, which the Vietnam War veteran estimates, boosted his tax-free monthly disability compensation from $2,400 to around $3,700.
The 67-year-old hasn’t worked since 2001 and due to diabetes, heart and kidney problems it’s unlikely he could work.
“I can’t drive anymore and I can’t really see enough to cook anymore,” the Cedar Rapids resident said.
Senior citizens have helped make the benefit — known as individual unemployability — one of the fastest-growing expenditures in the VA disability system. The number of “unemployable” veterans has nearly tripled since 2000, to 321,451, with the majority at ages when most people have already stopped working.
Government data show that 56 percent of the beneficiaries are at least 65 years old. Eleven percent are 80 or older.
Being classified as unemployable can add $1,100 to $1,900 to a veteran’s monthly disability pay, which often comes on top of Social Security.
At an annual cost of at least $4 billion, the benefit is part of a rapidly expanding disability system expected to cost $60 billion this year. Federal reports have singled out unemployability as an example of how a system operating under rules established decades ago has not kept pace with modern times.
“VA’s compensation program does not reflect the current state of science, technology, medicine and the labor market,” the Government Accountability Office concluded in a 2006 report.
After the war
GAO researchers are now examining the benefit to determine how many veterans classified as unemployable had left the labor force voluntarily. An opportunity Kaiser didn’t have.
Kaiser returned to Ohio, his home state, after the war where he was a truck driver for 35 years. He delivered wine to restaurants before his employer fired him in 2001 when his PTSD effected his ability to work. He estimates he made around $45,000 in his last job 13 years ago.
Although he returned home from the war in 1969 after serving as an Amtrak landing vehicle driver, he didn’t experience any problems until 2001. He felt emotional at odd times, had violent episodes and became easily agitated.
He sought assistance and ended up at a VA hospital in Chicago. He received 90 percent disability rating for diabetes, heart problems and PTSD. Being declared unemployable in 2003 raised his pay to the 100 percent level.
Kaiser lives with a friend, Louis Oliphant, and his family who re his full-time caregivers. Kaiser, who goes to dialysis three times a week, said the unemployability benefit provides a much-needed supplement since he can barely get around on his own.
“I’d never be able to afford the house I’m in,” Kaiser said. “I couldn’t do anything, basically.”
When the VA created the unemployability benefit in 1934, Social Security didn’t exist. Manual labor was the only option for most workers, and the Great Depression was in full swing.
The benefit was a safety net for veterans who couldn’t work because of health problems that began in the military and whose disability ratings, based on a formula combining their conditions, fell shy of 100 percent.
In 1945, as disabled World War I veterans continued to fall out of the workforce, the VA adopted a regulation ensuring eligibility to veterans of any age. That decision underlies much of the current growth.
More than half the 137,343 veterans approved since 2010 were 65 or older, including 13,684 who were at least 75, according to VA statistics.
The largest group served in the Vietnam era. Many joined the disability system over the last decade as the VA expanded eligibility for PTSD and diabetes, heart disease, prostate cancer and other common conditions on the presumption they were caused by exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, used to clear jungle vegetation in the war.
Once in the system, veterans are eligible for the unemployability benefit if their ailments are deemed too severe for them to work and their disability ratings reach a certain threshold, usually 60 or 70 percent, depending on their mix of conditions.
William McMath, a psychologist who conducts disability examinations at the VA Health Care System in Northport, N.Y., said decisions about unemployability are often subjective and that it is easy to be swayed by elderly veterans who are struggling financially.
Joe Meredith, who served in Vietnam and now works in northern Michigan helping veterans secure disability benefits, said many of his clients have had long careers and use the unemployability provision to supplement their retirements.
“Someone has spent 30 years working for General Motors, 30 years in the military or 30 years driving a bus,” Meredith said. “Now they are retired. And guess what? They’re a Vietnam veteran and they’re going to jump on the bandwagon.”
He said he advocates for them as a way to right the wrongs of the past — a draft system biased against the underclass and poor treatment after the war.
“If a guy gets $3,000 a month, maybe that evens the score a little,” he said.
The unemployability benefit has been controversial for at least a decade.
The GAO’s 2006 report said the law does not give clear standards for classifying veterans as unemployable. The VA inspector general has found widespread geographic variation in how it is awarded.
Restricting the benefit to veterans younger than the full retirement age for Social Security _ 65 or 67, depending on the recipient’s birth year _ would save $17 billion over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office estimated last month.
To provide context, the report noted that 37 percent of U.S. men 65 to 69 remain in the labor force. That figure falls to 11 percent for men over 74.
Advocacy groups have attacked age caps as unfair to veterans who want to keep working.
Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said any age cap would be arbitrary and noted that many U.S. senators are 65 or older.
“This is about how we can save money on the backs of disabled veterans,” Violante said.
A 2007 study for the VA found that veterans classified as unemployable had a higher mortality rate than other veterans with similar standard disability ratings — evidence that on the whole the designation was not arbitrary.