State law leaves vets lacking benefits
State law restrictions, combined with federal appeal requirements, may have left some potentially deserving Louisiana National Guard (LANG) veterans ineligible for a $100,000 disability benefit.
Initial legislation providing death and disability benefits for LANG veterans activated after Sept. 11, 2001 went into effect four years ago. Act 406 of the 2011 Regular Session fixed some problems with death benefits and went into effect July 5.
"This is strictly for (Louisiana) National Guard," state Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary of Benefits Richard Blackwell said. "They must have been activated either by the President or by the governor.
"The disability has to be 100 percent, permanent and total – to include unemployability – and it has to be the initial final rating decision from the federal VA or workman's comp," he continued.
In contrast, eligibility for the death benefit is decided by the adjutant general of LANG, and after recent changes to the law has not created new concerns.
If federal officials do not give an appropriate initial disability rating, veterans have one year to appeal the rating with federal agencies. If their appeal is successful, their rating is retroactively adjusted, made final and they become eligible.
An unsuccessful appeal or failure to appeal within the allotted year makes their initial rating final and no subsequent changes or additions will make them eligible.
"We have paid two individuals that met the requirements," Blackwell said. "They were paid last week. One of them was processed within 10 days."
However, at least 11 applications have been denied.
"Their initial final rating was either not 100 percent or was not permanent and total," Blackwell said.
Chad Battles of Gretna and Lafayette resident Deron Santiny have filed suit in state court against the state Department of Veterans Affairs for rejecting their applications.
"We worked on a law that dealt with death benefits but were aware of the problems with the disability benefit," State Sen. Robert Adley said.
He said that to fix the disability issue would have taken the bill over budget and, due to 2011's economic climate, could have risked the death benefit fix.
"The veterans believe, and I'm inclined to agree, that if their disabilities add up to 100 percent they should qualify," Adley said. "We'll be holding committee meetings after the elections to try and fix the disability problem."
Michael DiResto, spokesperson for the Division of Administration, said $9.65 million is available to pay both sets of benefits. The bulk of the money, at least $8 million, is for the death benefits.
The state recently bulked up funding after receiving complaints from the families of slain soldiers that they were not being paid.
(Editor's note: Portions of this story originally appeared in an AP wire article.)