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Study says VA lags on fixing state disparities in disability pay

WASHINGTON - Injured veterans could be shortchanged in their government disability pay depending on where they live because of disparities from state to state, an internal study finds.

WASHINGTON - Injured veterans could be shortchanged in their government disability pay depending on where they live because of disparities from state to state, an internal study finds.

In 2005, Minnesota veterans disability benefits ranked 27th among the states, averaging $8,709 a year. North Dakota ranked 39th with an average annual benefit of $8,237.

The 1½-year investigation, conducted by the Institute for Defense Analysis, is the first to examine scientifically the reasons behind the Veterans Affairs' uneven handling of veterans claims for disability compensation. It was launched by the VA after reports in 2005 of wide differences in payments.

The 50-page report, made available to The Associated Press, found that average annual disability payments swung widely - from $7,556 in Ohio to $12,395 in New Mexico. Nationwide, the average pay was $8,890.

"The process by which VA adjudicates claims has potential for producing persistent regional differences in rating results," said David Hunter, who compiled the study.

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Since reports of disparities emerged in 2005, the VA has struggled to explain them. It has largely blamed problems on demographic factors beyond its control; for instance, whether a particular state had more Vietnam veterans, who on average receive higher payments, or whether a veteran had legal help when making a claim.

But the study found that roughly one-third of the problems could be blamed on poor VA standards and inadequate training. As a result, disability raters in VA regional offices often had too much discretion to decide how much pay a veteran was entitled.

The report also faulted the VA for not collecting data on certain claims, such as how many post-traumatic stress disorder cases are rejected.

Tribal housing lags

Tribal leaders said Thursday that they need more money to help meet housing needs on reservations where thousands of American Indians live in substandard homes with no indoor plumbing or central heat.

Speaking to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee during a hearing on Indian housing, tribal leaders urged senators to renew the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, which has helped tribes get federal grants for new homes.

David Brien, chairman of North Dakota's Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, said the Bush administration's budget request for the program - about $627 million - is far less than the $1 billion tribes and advocacy groups urge.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he was sympathetic and criticized the administration's budget request.

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Pool safety billThe Senate Commerce Committee unanimously passed legislation Thursday aimed at improving pool safety, less than a month after the injury of a 6-year-old Minnesota girl at a wading pool.

The bill would ban manufacture, sale or distribution of drain covers not meeting anti-entrapment safety standards.

The panel also approved an amendment by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that would require existing public pools and new ones - nto install safety equipment within a year.

The bill, whose co-sponsors include Klobuchar and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., also calls on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to stared national pool safety education program.

Education changesAs Congress debates whether to reauthorize President Bush's landmark No Child Left Behind education law, Sen. Norm Coleman and two other senators proposed legislation Wednesday that they say builds on that law but in a way that gives states more flexibility.

Coleman, R-Minn., along with Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., announced plans to introduce the "All Students Can Achieve Act."

The bill would require states to develop measures for teacher effectiveness and allow states to opt out of the federal "highly qualified teacher requirement," required by the No Child Left Behind law.

Mental health parityA House panel Wednesday passed legislation named for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone that would require equal health insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses, when policies include both.

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The bill, sponsored by Reps. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., passed the House Education and Labor Committee 33-9.

Wellstone, who died in a plane crash in 2002, championed the issue. In 1996, he and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., won OK of a law banning plans that offer mental health coverage from setting lower annual and lifetime spending limits for mental treatments than for physical ailments. This year's bill, The "Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act," would add things such as co-payments, deductibles and treatment limitations.

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