Veterans Affairs to ease process for disability
The government is preparing to issue new rules that will make it substantially easier for veterans who have been found to have post-traumatic stress disorder to receive disability benefits for the illness, a change that could affect hundreds of thousands of veterans from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
The regulations from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which will take effect as early as Monday and cost as much as $5 billion over several years according to congressional analysts, will essentially eliminate a requirement that veterans document specific events like bomb blasts, firefights or mortar attacks that might have caused PTSD, an illness characterized by emotional numbness, irritability and flashbacks.
For decades, veterans have complained that finding such records was extremely time consuming and sometimes impossible. And in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, veterans groups assert that the current rules discriminate against tens of thousands of service members — many of them women — who did not serve in combat roles but nevertheless suffered traumatic experiences.
Under the new rule, which applies to veterans of all wars, the department will grant compensation to those with PTSD if they can simply show that they served in a war zone and in a job consistent with the events that they say caused their conditions. They would not have to prove, for instance, that they came under fire, served in a front-line unit or saw a friend killed.
The new rule would also allow compensation for service members who had good reason to fear traumatic events, known as stressors, even if they did not actually experience them.
There are concerns that the change will open the door to a flood of fraudulent claims. But supporters of the rule say the veterans department will still review all claims and thus be able to weed out the baseless ones.
''This nation has a solemn obligation to the men and women who have honorably served this country and suffer from the emotional and often devastating hidden wounds of war," the secretary of veterans affairs, Eric K. Shinseki, said in a statement to The New York Times. "This final regulation goes a long way to ensure that veterans receive the benefits and services they need."
Although applauded by veterans' groups, the new rule is generating criticism from some quarters because of its cost. Some mental health experts also believe it will lead to economic dependency among younger veterans whose conditions might be treatable.
Disability benefits include free physical and mental health care and monthly checks ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $2,000, depending on the severity of the condition.
''I can't imagine anyone more worthy of public largesse than a veteran," said Dr. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy group, who has written on PTSD. "But as a clinician, it is destructive to give someone total and permanent disability when they are in fact capable of working, even if it is not at full capacity. A job is the most therapeutic thing there is."
But Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, said most veterans applied for disability not for the monthly checks but because they wanted access to free health care.
''I know guys who are rated 100 percent disabled who keep coming back for treatment not because they are worried about losing their compensation but because they want their life back," Weidman said.
Weidman and other veterans' advocates said they were disappointed by one provision of the new rule: It will require a final determination on a veteran's case to be made by a psychiatrist or psychologist who works for the veterans department.
The advocates assert that the rule will allow the department to sharply limit approvals. They argue that private physicians should be allowed to make those determinations as well.
But Tom Pamperin, associate deputy undersecretary for policy and programs at the veterans department, said the agency wanted to ensure that standards were consistent for the assessments.
''VA and VA-contract clinicians go through a certification process," Pamperin said. "They are well familiar with military life and can make an assessment of whether the stressor is consistent with the veterans' duties and place of service."
The new rule comes at a time when members of Congress and the veterans department itself are moving to expand health benefits and disability compensation for a variety of disorders linked to deployment. The projected costs of those actions are generating some opposition, though probably not enough to block any of the proposals.
The largest proposal would make it easier for Vietnam veterans with ischemic heart disease, Parkinson's disease and hairy-cell leukemia to receive benefits.
The rule, proposed last fall by the veterans department, would presume those diseases were caused by exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant, if a veteran could simply demonstrate that he had set foot in Vietnam during the war.
The rule, still under review, is projected to cost more than $42 billion over a decade.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and a Vietnam veteran, has asked that Congress review the proposal before it takes effect.
''I take a back seat to no one in my concern for our veterans," Webb said in a floor statement in May. "But I do think we need to have practical, proper procedures."
More than 2 million service members have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001, and by some estimates 20 percent or more of them will develop PTSD.
More than 150,000 cases of PTSD have been diagnosed by the veterans health system among veterans of the two wars, while thousands more diagnoses have come from private doctors, said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, an advocacy group.
But Sullivan said records showed that the veterans department had approved PTSD disability claims for only 78,000 veterans. That suggests, he said, that many veterans with the disorder are having their compensation claims rejected by claims processors.
''Those statistics show a very serious problem in how VA handles PTSD claims," Sullivan said.
Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., and sponsor of legislation similar to the new rule, said his office had handled dozens of cases involving veterans who had trouble receiving disability compensation for PTSD, including a Navy veteran from World War II who twice served on ships that sank in the Pacific.
''It doesn't matter whether you are an infantryman or a cook or a truck driver," Hall said. "Anyone is potentially at risk for post-traumatic stress."