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Obama announces new policies to aid veterans with PTSD

WASHINGTON — President Obama, saying that post-traumatic stress injuries are a one of two "signature injuries" of today's wars, announced Saturday that new policies will soon take effect to make it easier for war-zone veterans suffering from the disorder to receive disability benefits.

The president previewed the changes at the Veterans' Affairs Department in his Saturday radio address. He said traumatic brain injuries also plague today's veterans and that that too few of them "receive the screening and treatment they need" for both conditions.

In the past, veterans were often "stymied" by a requirement to produce evidence that a specific event triggered their PTSD. That has kept those who served in non-combat roles in war zones from getting the care they need, he said.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can surface after traumatic events and leave sufferers feeling scared, confused or angry, according to the VA's National Center for PTSD. They may experience flashbacks, become suddenly angry, have a hard time sleeping or concentrating and develop problems related to relationships, employment, alcohol or drug use.

Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., who championed the changes, said veterans had been required to produce incident reports, buddy statements, medals or other corroboration to prove they lived through trauma.


Hall, whose district includes West Point and who chairs a House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance, told of a World War II veteran who twice sank on ships in the Pacific and was rescued. "Like a bad 'Twilight Zone' episode, there were body parts and sharks going by him," the lawmaker said. But when the man sought help during the 1970s, the VA initially dismissed him having a pre-existing condition, schizophrenia.

He now is receiving disability checks, Hall said.

Hall said the regulation will presume there is a service-related connection when a combat-zone veteran suffers from PTSD.

More than 400,000 veterans now receive compensation benefits for service-related PTSD, according to VA officials. Officials declined to say how many people might be impacted by the new regulation.

A Rand Corp. study dating to April 2008 that found nearly 20 percent of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan — 300,000 in all_reported symptoms of PTSD or major depression, but only slightly more than half had sought treatment.

The study said these cases of PTSD and depression would cost the nation as much as $6.2 billion in the two years after deployments for costs associated with medical care, lost productivity and suicide.

An analysis by the Chicago Tribune published last spring found that overall disability payments to veterans from all wars hit $34.3 billion in 2009, a 76 percent increase since 2003.

Veterans of the war-on-terror era received $329 million in disability payments in 2009 related to mental disorders, including PTSD, which is 34 percent of all disability payments to vets from this period, the paper found.


Officials said the changes would be published Monday in the Federal Register and take effect immediately. The new regulation will also make it easier for veterans to receive treatment for PTSD.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Saturday that the change was "very good step forward." But the VFW favored a more expansive bill introduced by Hall that would also accept PTSD diagnoses from private-sector mental-health professionals, not just those at the VA.

"The VA mental health professionals, as good as they are, are understaffed and over-tasked," Davis said.

Still, Davis saluted the VA for "acknowledging that we've got a lot of troops fighting in a war without front lines. Whether you saw it up front as an infantryman or you were a truck driver or you were working in a medical unit in the rear or unfortunately, you were sitting in a chow hall when a suicide bomber let go, you were impacted."


(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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