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Experiment planned to improve veteran disability benefits

Today's veterans benefit system is in place with the best of intentions. The goal is to provide material support to those who suffer disability as a result of military service to our country.

Securing benefits for disabled veterans can be complicated, however, and can require a lot of hands-on effort. But even among those who do qualify and receive help, there are many who complain the system works against them.

Being labeled disabled can be a blessing and a curse.

According to critics, today's system often discourages rejoining society and drives beneficiaries to seek ever-higher disability ratings. As a result, nearly half of all veterans since 2001 are estimated to be on an escalating disability track. That compares with 11 percent of World War II vets, who suffered a wound rate twice as high as those from the country's most recent conflicts.

Because of the paradox, there are some who want to update the benefit system so it delivers on the ideal of returning veterans to as great a sense of independence as possible.

Called the Independence Project, the anticipated three-year program aims to recruit about 500 participants from the ranks of moderately to seriously wounded veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq. Planners say they'll be randomly sorted into three groups. Each will go through a different model to see what types of support work best.

One group will get a personal rehabilitation account with a value of $10,000 to $20,000. That money can be used to pay for anything that supports the individual's efforts to become independent.

Planners say this group will also be able to earn a bonus of 30 cents for every dollar they earn in the first year. The bump will be phased back over the next two years of the project. In addition, group one members will have the benefit of focused social services, including testing of cognitive, medical and emotional status. Case managers will also help them develop and follow a plan for achieving their goals. A second group will get the wage bonus, but no other supports. The members in these two groups will also be asked to forego their right to seek increased disability benefits.

The third group, serving as a control, will work the benefit system as it exists today without any extra interventions.

What do you think will come of this?

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Fresno, CA 93711

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