Those in the military have risked everything to serve our country, leaving their homes and families and putting their lives at risk to protect us. Unfortunately, military service can often have longtime health effects. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that nearly four billion veterans report they suffer from some sort of disability.
However, there are programs in place to assist veterans. Whether they suffer from physical or mental disabilities resulting from their service or develop disabling conditions on their return to civilian life, these programs may provide benefits to help them make ends meet. VA disability, workers’ compensation and Social Security disability benefits may be available to ease the financial burden.
VA disability benefits
Service members injured while on active duty may be entitled to receive VA disability benefits, also known as service-connected disability compensation. Generally, to be eligible for benefits, veterans must have received a general discharge or higher, though exceptions exist. Veterans do not have to be totally disabled to receive benefits.
Instead, veterans can receive VA disability benefits if they are at least 10 percent disabled from an event that occurred during military service. This is determined using a system of disability ratings based on medical evidence of a current physical or mental condition. The benefit amount available to veterans is based on a graduated scale from 10-100 percent, with the doctor assigning a disability rating in increments of 10 percent during their assessment.
Veterans may also receive compensation for secondary disabilities that occurred during active duty, even if they arise after their service. The degrees of disability are designed to compensate for considerable loss of working time from injury or illness. If the veteran’s disability is more than 30 percent and he or she has dependents, the veteran becomes eligible for an additional allowance.
Veterans need to be aware that disability compensation may be offset by some other military benefits received.
Workers’ compensation benefits
A veteran may still be able to receive workers’ compensation benefits if he or she is also receiving VA benefits. Since a veteran does not have to be totally disabled to receive VA disability benefits, he or she could subsequently be injured while working for another employer.
The VA disability benefits and workers’ compensation systems are separate and distinct from one another in both the source of the benefits and in the assessment of the amount a veteran may collect. VA benefits are federal funds paid to disabled veterans. On the other hand, workers’ compensation benefits are paid by an injured worker’s employer, or more commonly the employer’s insurer, to compensate workers hurt on the job.
Both systems have different methods for assessing the level of disability. While the VA program uses the disability ratings system discussed above, workers’ compensation programs are based on wage loss and required medical treatment.
One of the most important differences between programs is who is eligible for benefits: veterans of the armed forces can get VA benefits, and workers are eligible for workers’ compensation programs. However, these two groups are not mutually exclusive. Being a member of one group does not preclude being part of the other. Veterans often return to civilian life and are deserving of the same protections other civilian workers receive. The only caveat is that if a veteran is injured on the job, the workers’ compensation benefits he or she receives may be offset by any VA benefits. The veteran may still qualify for the same amount, but the payment source may differ.
Social Security disability
Veterans who become totally disabled often qualify for both VA and Social Security disability benefits. The Social Security Administration estimates that approximately 621,000 military Veterans received disability insurance benefits in 2016.
If a veteran receives benefits under both programs, his or her Social Security disability payments will not be reduced. Meanwhile, veterans receiving service-related VA benefits will not have those payments reduced by Social Security benefits. Thus, those individuals receiving VA benefits due to a disability incurred through military service can apply for maximum Social Security benefits.
However, veterans getting VA benefits because of a non-service-related disability will see those payments reduced by Social Security disability payments. This is because those benefits are income-based, whereas service-connected benefits are not.
Social Security disability benefits are available to those individuals whose conditions keep them out of work or earning less than $1,220 per month. Applicants serving in the military do not have to be retired or separated from the service to qualify for benefits. Those currently serving in the military are permitted to apply at any time.
Both Social Security and Veterans Affairs pay disability benefits to qualifying people, but the programs, processes and criteria for receiving benefits are different. The disability rating a veteran receives in connection with VA disability benefits does not have any bearing on eligibility for Social Security benefits. Prior to 2017, very high disability ratings determined during the VA process would be given significant weight by the SSA. That rule no longer applies. However, the SSA will weigh any evidence submitted to the VA in making its own disability determination. Thus, the same evidence will be relevant.
Likewise, the SSA’s determination that a veteran is disabled might not be given much weight by the VA, since VA benefits are based solely on service-connected disabilities and the SSA does not differentiate between service- and non-service-related conditions.
There is, however, one advantage for veterans who have received a VA disability rating of 100 percent. The SSA provides expedited processing of disability claims filed by such individuals. So, while a VA rating of 100 percent does not guarantee a veteran will qualify for Social Security disability benefits, his or her claim will receive high priority status through the application process and the various hearing and appeals levels.
Our veterans have risked their lives, health and welfare to serve our country. Whether they are injured in the line of duty or suffer a disabling condition on their return to civilian life, VA disability, workers’ compensation and Social Security disability offer some measure of compensation toward making them whole again. While we can never really repay the debt owed to them, we should at the very least make them aware of these programs so that they get the benefits they deserve.