It's time to rethink a veteran disability system that "incentivizes disability," Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said during a Friday forum in Washington, the same day President Trump signed new VA accountability legislation.   

"Our current disability system that is designed from 50, 60 or 70 years ago….. I would suggest it's not sustainable and it may not be achieving the results of well-being for our veterans," Shulkin said at an event organized by the Bush Institute's Military Service Initiative. 

"Our system incentivizes disability, when our system should be incentivizing health and well-being." 

That doesn't mean pulling back disability compensation benefits, he said.

"Everybody recognizes we have a responsibility as a country to provide and be able to supplement resources for veterans that were harmed or injured during their time of duty. I don't think anybody's suggesting that we take away our commitment to that," he said. 

"But to suggest that there's not a better way to do things is also wrong." 

Shulkin made the comments in response to a question about whether the system should be re-evaluated. Potential new offerings could include wellness programs, rather than simply monthly compensation payments. Disability compensation is a monthly tax-free benefit paid to veterans who are determined to be at least 10 percent disabled because of injuries or diseases that happened during or were aggravated by military service.


"I do believe we need to begin to start having a discussion and a dialogue. Not so much about withdrawing our commitment," Shulkin said, but about how to make the system better to improve outcomes for veterans.

"I think that rethinking how we could approach disability is a key topic that's going to be very important in future years," he said. 

According to the VA budget documents, there are about 5.5 million veterans and survivors who will receive disability compensation or pension benefits in 2018 — about 180,000 more than there were in 2017. The budget proposal includes a request for nearly $87 billion for disability compensation and pension benefits; $86 billion was budgeted for fiscal 2017. 

He acknowledged that the discussion will be a difficult one, "because this is one that I worry, if not done well, could become politicized." 

"VA has really done a great job in keeping itself in a bipartisan dialogue," he added, "and I am committed to making sure that VA and veterans don't become part of the political discussion, but more part of, 'How do we do what we do better? How do we accomplish our mission better?' "

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at kjowers@militarytimes.com.